Marshalltown devastated after catastrophic tornado

Four emergency alerts pinged through on cell phones. Sirens rang through downtown twice. At first, it seemed like nothing. Then it hit.

Devastating.

In a word, that is how small businesses and their owners, residents and anyone who witnessed the tornado that struck Marshalltown Thursday afternoon describe it.

As it happened

Local resident David Powers said he witnessed the destructive tornado on Church Street as it turned from black to an unnerving deep purple. At that point, he sought immediate shelter.

Places like the Marshalltown Public Library, the Animal Rescue League, the YMCA-YWCA and other local organizations began harboring passersbys and the patrons already at the facilities.

Sheila Just, of Kingdom Trucking, had no choice but to take cover in the bed of her semi with her dogs in the truck with her. Bricks, glass and other debris fell around her, even cracking the windows of her truck. But somehow, she made it out alive — she credits the work of a higher power.

Josh Gummert, an employee at Sub City, took the four customers in the restaurant down to basement as they heard the sirens going off. They heard loud cracking while they were in shelter. Now, they believe the noise was the glass shattering on the store front windows.

“We were looking toward the (Marshall County) Courthouse and it was dark, and all the sudden it swooped up … when we looked over between the trees, we could see the funnel — it was moving really quick,” said resident Selena Weitzell.

The steeple on the Marshall County Courthouse was gone. Bricks, glass, branches, flanks of wood and random debris scattered the streets. Residents took in the damage throughout town in the post-storm heat and humidity, moving branches and pieces of houses off their lawn and out of the street.

Parked cars were slightly damaged or totaled with entire trees on top of them. Some were in entirely different spots than they were originally parked. As people descended on the devastation, one woman shouted across the parking lot, “at least I still got a driver’s window.”

Downtown hit hard

In the aftermath it appeared that Main Street was hit especially hard, as if the tornado had a designated plan to head that route. Typical to other storms that have hit Marshalltown in recent years, the tornado seemed to pick up strength as it traveled west to east, but prominent evidence of the event can be seen largely throughout the northeast and northwest quadrants of Marshalltown.

Willard’s owner, Jonathan Hull, said that he, like other small business owners along Main Street, sustained broken windows, damaged roofs and brick walls torn apart by the tornado’s catastrophic gusts.

Less than a week out from RAGBRAI, Black Tire Bike Co. owner-operator Matt Gerstandt was preparing for the big event. Disaster changed that in the blink of an eye.

“Basically, what we got is the third-floor roof is peeled off, and the whole west side of my building is gone — the façade, the awning,” he said, surveying storm damage Thursday afternoon. “We’ll be fine, it’s going to be alright, we’re cleaning up — we’re just securing the building.”

Fellow Main Street store owner Agustin Ortaz Sanchez said he rushed to Angel’s Store when his sister called about the storm Thursday afternoon. He was working at another job in Newton at the time. After talking to firefighters Thursday afternoon, he found it wasn’t safe to go inside his business.

“I can’t go inside, I don’t know what happened inside,” he said.

Power outage

Alliant Energy spokesperson Mike Wagner said their time and efforts currently are being spent on “make safe” activities. They are working on ruptured gas lines and de-energizing down power lines. Because there are many unsafe areas across town, they are working to fix the issues before they start to fully assess the situation, he said. There is currently no timeline for the power to be restored. The storm did damage substations in town. Those needing assistance should visit the Red Cross at the Marshalltown Fire Department.

Reports from authorities

Marshalltown authorities are working to understand the scope of the damage caused by the tornado. They are asking citizens to help out by clearing the way for emergency crews.

“First responders are actively working to assess damage and injuries, but our efforts are being hampered by people driving into the city to see the damage,” said Capt. Brian Batterson of the Marshalltown Police. “Please ask citizens to say away from the north part of Marshalltown. The situation remains dangerous with power lines down and gas leaks.”

The police are currently operating out of the (Marshalltown) Fire Department.

A curfew was set at 9 p.m. Thursday to ensure the streets were clear for emergency responders. Batterson said the damage hit a specific part of Marshalltown.

Even so, Main Street and accompanying side streets were still especially busy with Alliant trucks, police vehicles and citizens assessing and assisting with repair around town as 9 p.m. approached. Likewise, Department of Public Works crews were out clearing Main Street of the hundreds of fallen trees and accompanying debris as evening came. The curfew is set to end at 7:30 a.m. Friday.

“The damage is pretty much north of Boone Street … nothing much on the south side of town that I know of,” he said. “It’s pretty significant from around the (Iowa) Veterans Home, maybe a little further west than that, all the way out to Third Avenue and the (UnityPoint Health-Marshalltown) hospital … the hospital stopped taking new patients because they just can’t take anyone new right now.”

Additionally, Batterson said there was significant damage to city vehicles.

“We don’t have one squad car that was parked that didn’t get damaged,” he said.

Batterson said the damage ranged from “minor” to “severe,” and that other vehicles from the city’s parks and recreation and engineer’s offices were also damaged.

In the aftermath of the storm, emergency vehicles from ambulances and police cars to fire department vehicles from all over Marshall County moved through town, assessing damage and trying to maintain public safety.

During a live press conference Thursday evening, Batterson praised the multi-community, multi-county response to the damage in Marshalltown. No reports of casualties were available by press time.

As darkness fell, the noise generated by chainsaws, reconstruction, and various business alarms created a devastatingly eerie backdrop for the end of the unexpected day.

However, Marshalltown carries on. This event will not destroy Marshalltown or its people. Despite this sudden and shattering act of nature, spirits remained high throughout town as the road to recovery began. Mere minutes after the tornado struck, a number of people along Main Street were seen checking on their neighbors, family and friends and began sawing plywood to place over broken windows and doors.