MAPLETON, Iowa - Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt didn't mince words Sunday morning after surveying the damage wrought by a ¾-mile wide tornado that destroyed or damaged as many as two-thirds of the 600 homes in the small town of Mapleton late Saturday night.
Pratt credited advanced warning systems that gave residents a 15-minute head start to prepare, but that alone may not be enough to explain how the town of 1,294 was spared any fatalities or even serious injury.
The Monona County Emergency Management Department is reporting 12-14 injuries, the worst of which is a broken leg.
"Last night we thought we'd be dealing with at least a dozen deaths," Pratt said. "It must have been our advanced warning and the grace of God...."
The devastating tornado ripped through Mapleton at about 7:20 p.m. Saturday night. The early-warning sirens sounded at 7:05 p.m., according to Mapleton Mayor Fred Stander. Pratt's department began spotting the tornado near Onawa at 6:45 p.m.
The National Weather Service issued a preliminary report measuring the tornado as an EF3, producing winds between 136 and 165 mph. City Clerk Karla Uhl said the storm destroyed roughly 3/4 of the city's buildings, and more than 120 homes were completely destroyed.
"I believe in the good Lord, and he saved this town," Pratt said. "We were very lucky."
He said the worst injury was a broken limb. "Fortunately for us there was no loss of life, only minor injuries. I think a broken arm or a broken leg was the worst of the injuries."
Authorities said a gas leak that kept residents and some assistance out of Mapleton for most of the morning has been stopped. However, it will take one to two weeks to fix the city-operated natural gas system.
Officials do expect power to be restored later today to areas of town that were not substantially damaged by the storm.
Mapleton Utilities Director Tom LeFebvre said the water and sewer systems are in working order.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, whose helicopter flight to Mapleton was delayed by fog this morning, is expected to arrive at about 2:30 p.m. today to tour the damage and meet with local officials. On Saturday night, Branstad approved an emergency proclamation for the county. Homeland Security officials will accompany Branstad to determine the appropriate federal response.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, was in Mapleton today and said he would work with federal authorities to make sure Mapleton has the assistance it needs.
"It cannot be overstated the damage here," King said.
Trees are uprooted by the hundreds in Mapleton and thrown into homes and vehicles. The Monona County Secondary Roads Department, which consisted of three metal buildings in southwest corner of Mapleton, is gone. Metal from those three buildings could be seen wrapped into trees and around poles up to four blocks away.
Nearly all of the homes from First Street to Eighth Street in southwest Mapleton have been destroyed. The Bomgaars and several other businesses in town were either heavily damaged or destroyed.
Despite the damage, employees at Bomgaars will assisting residents with flashlights and other materials out of the damaged building.
The Mapleton Community Center is the rallying point for residents already in town and the Siouxland Red Cross has established a relief station there. Most residents in town are cleaning up debris today.
Return to siouxcityjournal.com throughout the day today for more updates.