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Early warnings may have saved Iowa town

Early warnings may have saved Iowa town

April 16th, 2012 by GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press in News

THURMAN, Iowa (AP) - Larry Hill traipsed through glass and nails in his living room on Sunday, shook his head and pointed to the couch where he easily could have died.

Hours earlier, the 72-year-old had barricaded himself in a closet as a tornado ripped the roof off his home in the southwest Iowa town of Thurman. He paid close attention to the television as Saturday night approached, and had bought extra groceries the night before.

"We'd been on the lookout for it for three days," he said. "They kept saying to look out for it Saturday night, and we were thinking about it. We were as ready as we could have been."

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 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.

Leland Achenbach wandered the streets of the tornado-ravaged 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.

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.

A truck driver driving along nearby Interstate 29 suffered a punctured lung when the winds overturned his rig, and Crecelius said he was taken to a hospital in Council Bluffs. Two elderly residents who need oxygen tanks were taken to a nursing home in the nearby town of Tabor.

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 over coffee and cigarettes, 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."

Thurman Mayor Rod Umphreys said city officials sounded the tornado sirens six or seven minutes before 5:30 p.m. Saturday, when the twister swept into town. Residents also received warnings through Code RED, an emergency system used by Fremont County that sends alerts to subscriber cellphones.

Umphreys said the combined warnings likely saved lives, as the tornado was shrouded in rain.

"I'd like to think it helped," Umphreys said. "Six or seven minutes isn't much time. But it was enough time for people to get to their basements."

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. We can feed this recovery with beans and some coffee."

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