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'Sudden' tornadoes rip through Iowa damaging homes, buildings

'Sudden' tornadoes rip through Iowa, destroying homes
Credit: Kyra Alcott/Special to the Register
Two funnel clouds are shown between Altoona and Bondurant on Thursday, July 19, 2018.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- At least five tornadoes battered central Iowa Thursday afternoon, skimming roofs off buildings at two manufacturing plants, toppling the top of a courthouse clock tower and destroying buildings and homes.

Miraculously, no fatalities were reported as of late Thursday night, and many of those taken to local hospitals were treated and released with minor injuries. 

“We’re very blessed that everyone’s OK,” Marshalltown police Capt. Brian Batterson said.

Tornadoes ripped through the towns of Marshalltown, Pella and Bondurant.  The Tornado warnings began sounding in Polk County around 2:55 p.m. Thursday. A short time later, reports trickled in of a funnel cloud touching down in Bondurant. At about 4:15 p.m., a tornado warning was issued for Pella, and about 20 minutes later, for Marshalltown. 

Amy Halter was about to leave work when a co-worker looked out the window and saw a tornado rumbling toward the Marshall County Courthouse, across the street from her workplace in downtown Marshalltown.

“He said ‘Run!’ and we ran,” said Halter, who works at a law office in the Masonic Temple building on Marshalltown’s downtown square.

Credit: Rodney White/The Register
Aerial view of extensive tornado damage to production plants Thursday, July 19, 2018, at Vermeer Corp., a farm and construction equipment manufacturer in Pella, Iowa. Emergency workers were treating injured workers and visitors.

Rod Donavon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines, said as a cold front moved through Iowa, conditions became favorable for thunderstorm supercells.

But, he added, “we were surprised by the unexpected strength of these. The numbers and the strength of these were a little more than we expected.”

More: Iowa tornadoes spawned by heavy storms cause severe damage; injuries reported

In Pella, 60 miles south of Marshalltown, about 400 people were visiting Vermeer Corp. in celebration of the agricultural equipment manufacturing company’s 70th anniversary.

Worker David Ayala was in building No. 5 when the alarm sounded.

"All of a sudden, like, big tubs full of metal and cars started flying by the window, and that’s when we realized it was bad," he said in an interview. "And then all of a sudden the lights went off and everyone got to the floor, and the roof next door and the wall came off, and that’s when everybody started freaking out."

Pella police praised Vermeer for following its emergency response protocol and getting employees to shelter quickly.

Seven people were treated for injuries at an area hospital.

Two of Vermeer’s plants received significant structural damage that will limit the company's ability to continue their operations, and the waste management facility is a total loss, officials said.

Aerial photos by Des Moines Register photographer Rodney White showed dozens of damaged vehicles, pieces of a roof from a damaged plant in the parking lot and twisted light poles. Debris was strewn throughout fields that encircle the plant.

In Bondurant, a tornado destroyed or severely damaged an estimated dozen houses.

“It’s going to take some time for the community to rebuild,” said Lt. Rich Blaylock, spokesman for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Register reporters Donnelle Eller, Tony Leys, Stephen Gruber-Miller and Dani Gehr contributed to this story.

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