Tornado watch: Early warnings may have saved Iowa town

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., issued a stern warning about oncoming storms more than 24 hours in advance. Residents credited early warnings with saving lives. 

Gene Blevins/Reuters
Storm chaser photographer Brad Mack shoots a tornado as it makes its way over the freeway near Moundridge, Kansas, Saturday. A spate of tornadoes tore through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, causing widespread damage.

Leland Achenbach wandered the streets of his tornado-ravaged southwestern Iowa town Sunday morning, staring at the collapsed homes and the tree in his swimming pool. He wondered how it was possible no one had been killed or even seriously hurt.

The lifelong resident of Thurman was throwing a birthday party Saturday for his 19-year-old daughter when the first storm alert flashed onto his brother's cellphone. Then came the sirens. Achenbach and his family hustled into a cellar and pulled the door shut. Moments later, he felt the air pressure plummet.

"My head was about to explode," Achenbach, 52, said as he surveyed the damage. "A minute later – boom. My kids were crying. You could feel the house and ground shaking."

Minutes later, nearly every building in the 250-person town about 125 miles southwest of Des Moines was damaged. Trees were uprooted, roofs peeled away and windows blown into living rooms.

Tornado checklist: What to do – and what myths to ignore

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting, took the unusual step of issuing a stern warning about the oncoming storms more than 24 hours in advance. Residents in Thurman credited forecasters' early warnings with possibly saving lives. Miraculously, the only injuries reported in town were some cuts and bruises.

"Everybody had plenty of warning prior to it hitting," said Ken Forney, 63, who lives just east of town. "I'm sure that helped a lot."

The National Weather Service confirmed the tornado as an EF-2, which meant it had wind speeds up to 135 miles per hour. The twister cut a path a half-mile wide and 10 miles long.

Thurman appeared to be the hardest hit community in Iowa, but storms caused damage elsewhere in the state, as well as in Nebraska. There were more than 100 reports of tornadoes across the middle of the country through dawn Sunday, forecasters said.

Gov. Terry Branstad issued an emergency proclamation for the southwest Iowa counties of Fremont and Union.

On Sunday afternoon, Branstad viewed storm damage in Creston, where a hospital suffered roof damage and had its windows blown out by storm. No injuries were reported. He also checked on damage to Southwest Iowa Community College, where classes have been cancelled Monday and Tuesday.

Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer said the tornado sirens didn't sound before the storm hit there. He said it was "very lucky" no one was hurt.

Storms also caused damage in southeast Nebraska's Johnson County, where a tornado blew down barns, outbuildings and trees in a path that spans several miles. A hospital in Norfolk sustained water and hail damage, and has temporarily closed its emergency department.

In Iowa, Fremont County Emergency Management Director Mike Crecelius said 75 to 90 percent of the homes in town suffered damage, many beyond repair.

Crecelius said officials haven't come up with a damage estimate.

"People right now are just trying to get things cleaned up," he said.

Pickup trucks and backhoes rumbled through the streets Sunday morning, passing clumps of insulation and jagged tree limbs. Neighbors gathered in the streets, and tried to decide where to start.

"It's like World War III around here," Jon Myre, 33, said as he hauled tree branches out of the street. "But it's all fixable. As long as nobody's hurt, I really don't care."

Ted Stafford, 54, hid in a bathroom as the storm howled past his home. Three windows exploded from the pressure. The house trembled.

"I've lived here my whole life, and this is the worst I've ever seen," he said. "But we're OK. Nobody's hurt.”

Associated Press writer Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.

Tornado checklist: What to do – and what myths to ignore

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