MAPLETON, Iowa -- Tales of survival, luck and an efficient warning system rose Sunday from Mapleton, a town that staggered to its feet, bruised and bloodied from a potentially deadly storm that did everything but kill someone.
"I believe in the good Lord, and he saved this town," Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said.
Pratt's work played a key life-saving role as well. His department spotted the tornado near Onawa, Iowa, at 6:45 p.m. Saturday. Officials with a number of agencies kept the twister in their sights as it barreled toward this city of 1,294.
The advance warning system sounded. Pratt said sirens wailed at 7:05 p.m. in Mapleton, allowing residents 15 minutes to take cover. They huddled in basements and bathrooms and hid beneath furniture or stairwells when winds up to 140 mph sucked, twisted and spit buildings, homes and vehicles across town.
"We had a pretty decent neighborhood at one time," said Larry Castle, who lost two vehicles and three homes in the 400 block of South Second Street in Mapleton's southwest corner, the area hit first, hit hardest. "There ain't much of it left now."
Mapleton City Clerk Karla Uhl examined a city map with Mayor Fred Standa. They estimated more than 120 of the city's 600-plus homes were destroyed. Two-thirds to three-quarters of Mapleton's homes sustained damage in the twister, one measured at three-quarters to a half-mile wide.
The biggest number? Zero. As in, no fatalities. Just three people were treated for injuries, a broken leg rating the worst.
"Last night, we thought there would be a dozen deaths for sure," said Pratt, now in his 11th year as sheriff. "By the grace of God these people were saved. Someone was looking down on Mapleton."
Everyone in town was accounted for shortly after the storm, save for two elderly women. One was Laura Gries, a woman in her 90s whose home at 408 S. Second St. collapsed around her, leaving only two closets intact. Castle and his son, Josh Castle, raced to find Griese curled up under her stairs, wearing a nightgown.
Gries, like dozens in this section of town, spent the night with a relative.
"This doesn't happen in your hometown," said Angie Cooper, who bought the adjacent home with Josh Castle seven months ago. "You could tell it was coming. It stayed right on top of us."
Cooper gathered their belongings and one of two family cats -- the other remained missing Sunday -- and headed for a relative's home. She's not sure she'll be able to work this week as her employer, Mac's Chevrolet in Mapleton, was one of at least a dozen businesses that sustained extensive damage.
'Katrina without the boats'
Widespread destruction isn't a foreign concept for Allen Mead and wife Jessica Mead, who rented a home two blocks north of Castle. Allen Mead examined a stripped tree behind what was left of his garage.
"That's a Katrina tree," he said with a sigh. "That's how they looked after Hurricane Katrina. This whole scene is Katrina without the boats."
Allen Mead left the area and found work in Slidell, Miss., rebuilding homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The rest of the family moved to join him 11 months later in Picayune, Miss. They lived there until 2010.
"We moved back here to be closer to family," Jessica said as she pulled a child's mud-caked bike from under the garage roof, a roof now resting 18 inches above the ground.
"We evacuated to Oklahoma when Hurricane Gustav hit in 2008," Allen Mead said. "But our dog, Bud, rode it out. He rode out last night's storm by getting down between a washing machine and a freezer as the garage fell around him."
Bud survived. So did the family. Luckily, the children were visiting relatives in nearby Smithland. "Thank God they were gone and didn't have to hear it," Jessica said.
Allen Mead cut limbs from a giant cottonwood tree that fell into the home. "We didn't have renter's insurance," he said with a shrug. "Who needs renter's insurance?
"I guess I did," he answered.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad walked through the neighborhood, stopping often to visit and comfort families like the Meads who worked all day to salvage what they could.
"The devastation is very dramatic here," Branstad said. "It's also heartwarming to see hundreds of people that are here helping out."
Twisters by town, by year
Tales of near scrapes were as plentiful as snapped tree trunks, power lines and the smell of gas in Mapleton:
Jacy Jochims cradled her 2-month-old daughter, Kiana Zawodny, as the storm tossed their garage into the street.
Mapleton Police Officer Tony Davis was trapped inside his squad car as the funnel hurled the vehicle 150 feet. Davis escaped unharmed.
Jon Rhode's garage roof landed on his recreational vehicle, totaling it. He sprang from the storm to find his children first, his 1992 Corvette after that. All were safe and sound, his most important possessions.
"This was the fifth tornado I've been in," said Rhode, who named his brushes with Iowa twisters by city and year: Doon, 1958; Rock Valley, 1972; Le Mars, 1978; and Sioux City, early 1980s.
"But this was the first one I've felt any real danger," Rhode added. "I'm thankful we had pretty good warning."
The American Red Cross set up a shelter at the Mapleton Community Center downtown. Eight displaced people stayed overnight. Residents came and went with workers throughout the day Sunday. The shelter had enough food to feed 500.
Pratt implored well-intentioned volunteers and onlookers to stay away as residents sorted their belongings and lives in the aftermath. Workers addressed and assessed the damage, marking with paint those homes deemed unliveable.
"This will cost millions," Pratt said.
"It cannot be overstated, the damage here," said U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican from nearby Kiron. "It is amazing there was no loss of life."
King paused, choking back emotion while talking about the last "infamous" tornado to strike the area. An EF3 tornado in June 2008 at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch on the Monona-Harrison County line near Blencoe killed four Boy Scouts.
"The fact that 60 percent of this town was destroyed is accurate," said King, who pledged to push for a federal disaster declaration, a measure that could boost rebuilding efforts.
As crews from dozens of agencies and area communities converged to clean trees and rubble, Tom LeFebvre, director of the town's municipal utilities department, devised plans to restore power. Volunteer firefighters went house to house with utility staffers, slowly attempting to bring electricity, water and gas back to residents.
The full return of gas service may take one to two weeks, Pratt advised.
Superintendent Steve Oberg of the Maple Valley/Anthon-Oto school in Mapleton canceled classes for today. The school lost a portion of its roof in two areas. Officials stopped the school play 10 minutes into the production when sirens went off.
Spectators and cast members huddled in two underground locker rooms as the storm raced through.
Oberg, a volunteer firefighter, stopped his pickup Sunday and talked about the scene at the school. He echoed the day's sentiment.
"Thankfully, nobody was hurt," he said.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Bob Crum, whose garage was blown into the side of his house. His car? Just a minor dent on the fender.
Andy Heistand of nearby Moorhead walked two miles into Mapleton late Saturday to gather his family and head south. On Sunday, he was still stunned, trying to process the carnage.
"I've been around here my whole life," he said. "This is the craziest thing I've ever seen."
Pratt agreed. The fact everyone survived made it so.