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Lennox Strong: An inside look at recovery after tornado decimated facility

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez points to new LED light fixtures that were installed following the 2018 tornado during a tour of the Lennox plant on July 9.

If you walked onto Lennox’s manufacturing floor in Marshalltown, you would hardly know one year ago a tornado nearly flattened the entire facility on July 19. You wouldn’t know insulation coated every piece of equipment and water from the sprinklers flooded the floor. You wouldn’t be able to tell the facility was in such a state of chaos General Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez left at midnight only to return at 5 a.m.

You wouldn’t know just how much effort it took to produce the first unit after the devastating storm with the hustle and bustle of the factory today — machines that can produce air conditioners and furnaces lickety-split. You wouldn’t know how much planning it took to continue operations while the building was literally coming back to life around them. You wouldn’t know there were any challenges getting new innovative technology — planned before the tornado — into a facility that was rebuilding.

“The highest compliment we can receive is that they don’t see anything that says tornado, that says devastation,” Gutierrez said.

But step outside the facility and you’ll see signs a storm took a bee-line directly toward Lennox 12 months earlier. You’ll see a horizon lined with trees sporting broken branches from tornado damage on properties surrounding the 12th Avenue facility. You’ll see temporary buildings which some office staff currently work out of while others work at the mall. You’ll see a space where the brick building those staff members used to occupy had to be demolished.

And on the very far end of the property where the plant once extended to, you’ll still see remnants of the bathrooms’ tile floors where employees took shelter as the tornado’s 144-mph winds shook the building. The storm came between shifts as the sirens first sounded shortly after 3:30 p.m. While that part of the building almost entirely collapsed, not a single person had a scratch.

T-R file PHOTO An aerial view of Lennox, one of Marshalltown’s largest employers, shows the facility was devastated by the EF-3 tornado which tore through Marshalltown in 2018.

It was the first of many miracles in a year that would require strength and ingenuity to rebuild.

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Gutierrez said it seems like the storm was 50 years ago. They’ve gone through so much. But Lennox’s priorities in the last year have remained at the forefront of daily decisions. Employee safety was No. 1 on the list — 35 employees also faced damage at their homes. Next: restoring operations, getting employees back to work and supporting customers.

“Recovery has been hard — it’s been long — but it’s an amazing story,” he said.

After the storm passed, Gutierrez opened the same door to the factory he opens each day since he started in 2010. He saw clear skies and daylight streaming in. The roof had collapsed and the forces of the storm cause implosion.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez gives a tour of the Lennox plant on July 9.

Staff immediately went into safety procedures — a safety manual guiding them on what to do. With so many drills and reviews of protocol, it was almost like a reflex, Gutierrez said. Everything was shut off within an hour. A number of employees stood watch that night to protect company assets.

The next day, corporate leaders and assessors were on the ground to examine the damage. Plans began immediately.

What happened at Lennox not only weighed heavy on those employed by the company. As one of Marshalltown’s largest employers, the entire city knew its fate depended in part on whether Lennox would rebuild. The company was founded in Marshalltown 124 years ago and is a manufacturer of heating, air conditioning and refrigeration products, among others.

On July 24, five days after the tornado, the company announced through Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer it would rebuild its facilities. Gov. Kim Reynolds had met with Doug Young, president and COO of Lennox International, where he informed her of the company’s commitment to rebuilding.

There was no working roof — it couldn’t just be repaired in spots, the whole thing had to go. Rain water was constantly being swept out of the facility. Yet, one week after the tornado, they were back creating the first critical part. One month after the storm, they had their first AC built. Three months later, they made a furnace. Some employees worked 49 days straight.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez reflects back on a photo taken of the first air conditioning unit that was manufactured after the 2018 tornado during a tour of the Lennox plant on July 9.

In an August statement, the company announced it would sustain $100 million in lost revenue as a result of the damage to the plant. A company announcement in December said insurance proceeds would cover tornado losses. The insurance money will cover site clean-up costs, asset write-offs, lost profits and the cost and timing to rebuild the manufacturing facility while repairing or replacing the necessary manufacturing equipment, according to the statement.

Continuing operations while rebuilding took place was a constant puzzle and everything was happening at once, Gutierrez said. He and several team members had experience with startup plants, which he said helped although the situation was very different.

Like other buildings in town ravaged by the tornado, it provided an opportunity to make Lennox better. New LED lights provide a much brighter environment.

“It’s going to look dramatically better,” Gutierrez said.

But construction has been no easy feat.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Plant Manager Miguel Gutierrez stands in what used to be a bathroom in the Lennox plant — where many employees took shelter during the 2018 tornado that damaged much of the complex.

The company employed more than 800 contractors, who worked simultaneously to provide 24/7 response​. That required more than 10,000 water bottles and seven tons of ice every single week to keep everyone hydrated. The entire 1 million square foot roof was compromised. Water extraction was needed 24/7 and over 500 million gallons of water​ from inside the factory had to be extracted. They used over 70,000 pieces of scaffolding that could stretch from Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids to build buildings inside of buildings as work continued. The company used close to 800​​ rental pieces of equipment​ brought to the site from 13 different states.

Despite rebuilding efforts, plans for new technology were not set aside. One piece of equipment — the Salvagnini MD — was coming from Europe. The tornado didn’t stop the company’s plan to bring it to the facility.

“The tornado happened, but it didn’t stop plans for Lennox to keep innovating,” Gutierrez said.

It also didn’t stop Lennox from giving back to its community. The company has donated $500,000 toward various recovery efforts this year.

Plans for rebuilding on both the north and south ends are nearing completion.

T-R PHOTO BY EMILY BLOBAUM - Part of the Lennox plant that was destroyed during the 2018 tornado is now an empty lot.

“We could not have done what we have done without the people in Marshalltown, and we could not have done what we’ve done without the support of our offices. What we’ve witnessed here is unbelievable,” Gutierrez said.

There is only one place walking through the plant where an outsider might realize a tornado happened. It’s a photo of hundreds of employees, beaming with pride, standing with the first unit they produced after the storm. Lennox Strong.

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Contact Emily Barske at 641-753-6611 or ebarske@timesrepublican.com