116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WINTERSET — Seven people were killed, including two children, when several tornadoes swept Saturday night through Iowa, destroying homes and knocking down trees and power lines in the state's deadliest storm in more than a decade, authorities said.
Emergency management officials in Madison County said four were injured and six people were killed when one tornado touched down in the area southwest of Des Moines near the town of Winterset around 4:30 p.m. Among those killed were two children under the age of 5 and four adults.
In Lucas County, about 54 miles southeast of Des Moines, officials confirmed one death and multiple reported injuries when a separate system struck less than an hour later.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources said the person who died there was in an recreational vehicle at a campground at Red Haw State Park in Chariton. One of those injured was also at the park, which was closed until further notice.
“Additionally, there are significant damages to the beach area, including the boat docks, the Bait House, beach shelters and a storage building, ” an Iowa DNR spokeswoman said. “The park is currently without power.”
Thunderstorms that spawned tornadoes moved through much of Iowa from the afternoon until Saturday night with storms also causing damage in the Des Moines suburb of Norwalk, areas just east of Des Moines and other areas of Eastern Iowa including around Vinton in Benton County, where mobiles homes and other structures were flattened. The storms were fueled by warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.
Officials reported a number of homes were damaged or destroyed, roads were blocked by downed lines and tree branches were shredded by the strong winds.
The storms are the deadliest to occur in Iowa since May 2008 when one tornado destroyed nearly 300 homes and killed nine people in the northern Iowa city of Parkersburg. Another tornado a month later killed four boys at the Little Sioux Boy Scout ranch in Western Iowa.
The National Weather Service in Des Moines tweeted early Sunday that there were at least three thunderstorms producing tornadoes, but it's "unknown at this time how many tornadoes occurred."
The weather service did confirm a second tornado besides the one near Winterset — a “strong” EF-1 with maximum winds near 110 mph in Benton County. The storm touched down at 7:15 p.m. southwest of Vinton and stayed on the ground for 11 minutes, covering a path of nearly 8.5 miles.
Northwest of Vinton, the weather service reported, the tornado smashed several buildings including mobile homes. People living in the mobile home park sought refuge in a storm shelter.
No injuries or fatalities were reported from that tornado.
Northern Illinois University meteorology professor Victor Gensini said there have been plenty of examples of deadly storms in March even though they are more common in April and May. Saturday's storms were not nearly as unusual as the mid-December tornado outbreak that Iowa saw last year, he said.
"The storms that produce these tornadoes these supercell storms, they don't care what the calendar says," Gensini said. "It doesn't have to say June. It doesn't have to say May. They form whenever the ingredients are present. And they were certainly present yesterday."
Scientists have said that extreme weather events and warmer temperatures are more likely to occur with human-caused climate change. However, scientifically attributing a storm system to global warming requires specific analysis and computer simulations that take time, haven't been done and sometimes show no clear connection.
Gensini said Saturday's storms likely caused more than $1 billion in damages over their entire track when the severe damage in Iowa is combined with wind damage as far away as Illinois.
Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Madison County, which allows state resources to be used to assist with response and recovery efforts. Madison County Emergency Management Director Diogenes Ayala said 52 homes were damaged or destroyed across nearly 14 miles.
After touring the storm damage near Winterset, Reynolds described "unimaginable destruction."
Reynolds teared up as she described the hundreds of people who streamed into the area to volunteer their help to clear debris that blocked roads and littered the hardest hit areas. Homeowners and volunteers were picking up wood debris and beginning to clear it away Sunday in the rolling hills south of Winterset as chain saws whirred away in the background.
"It's just unbelievable. I tried to walk through and thank them and over and over (and) the response was, we're Iowans and that's what we do," she said.
The foundation was all that was left of several homes. The tornado carved a path of destruction along a ridge while several hundred feet away other homes were undamaged.
Ayala said emergency responders navigated narrow roads blocked by downed trees and debris Saturday night to help.
"With trees and debris and everything around, just to go out there and start the search and rescue and get the people affected out of there, I cannot express the heroism of the first responders who were out there last night," Ayala said.
Officials identified the six people who were killed in Madison County as Melissa Bazley, 63; Rodney Clark, 64; Cecilia Lloyd, 72; Michael Bolger, 37; Kenley Bolger, 5; and Owen Bolger, 2. The victims came from three different households.
The Blue Springs BMX bike racetrack, located near Kansas City, Mo., was helping others organize a prayer service for the Bolgers, who has been active in the sport there.
Lucas County officials didn't immediately identify the person who died there Sunday afternoon.
Six people hurt in Madison County, which is known for the "Bridges of Madison County" book and movie, were being treated for injuries Sunday, but their conditions weren't immediately available.
The National Weather Service in Des Moines tweeted Saturday that initial photos and videos from the damage around the community of Winterset suggested it was at least an EF-3 tornado, capable of causing severe damage, on the Enhanced Fujita scale. It said weather service teams would investigate the damage Sunday and further assess a potential rating.
EF-3 storms typically have winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Wendy Burkett told the Des Moines Register she and two of her three daughters were in their house Saturday afternoon when her husband, Tony, called her from a nearby shed where he was working and alerted her about a tornado warning.
Burkett said she came outside and joined him in front of the house, looking down their driveway toward the southwest. "And then we saw it. The tornado," she said. "There was debris flying around and it was getting louder and louder."
They hurried with their daughters to their basement as the tornado roared by within seconds. As they clung to each other, a window shattered and water began spewing from the pipes, she said.
But within about a minute, the tornado passed by, and while the family was unhurt, their home was in ruins amid debris all around, even in the trees.
Well over two dozen reports of tornadoes were recorded Saturday by the National Weather Service, most dealing with the tornado near Winterset that continued on a northeastern path.
A storm spotter reported structure and tree damage near Patterson; an emergency planner reported several houses flattened near Pleasant Hill near Des Moines; a storm spotter reported an overturned semi on Interstate 80 east of Des Moines; and a spotter reported a tornado in Tama.
Other reports of a tornado came from farther south, including structure and tree damage and a gas leak reported by storm spotters near Chariton. The weather service had not yet confirmed the system there was a tornado, although a trained spotter reported seeing two in the area.
Other reports of large hail and severe wind gusts were reported. They include winds reaching 60 mph near Ely and three-quarter inch hail in Palo.
The storms also ushered in a cold front, with highs Sunday in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City of about 44 degrees. Between 1 and 4 inches of snow was forecast to fall by Monday morning in the Corridor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.