Residents of the Madison County village of Winterset were reaching out to friends and neighbors on Sunday after a strong tornado ripped through the neighborhood, killing at least six people, including two children under the age of five. In Chariton, Lucas County, a seventh death was reported, although officials provided scant details. Following a series of verified tornadoes in Iowa prompted by a stretch of severe weather that struck much of the Midwest, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Madison County.
“Our hearts ache during this time, but I know Iowans will step up and come together to help in this time of need,” Reynolds said in a statement. “They already are.”
At the height of the storm, more than 100,000 households and businesses in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa were without power. Flights were halted at Des Moines International Airport, and passengers were sheltered in storm shelters beneath the airport. Winterset was hit by the deadly tornado just after another confirmed tornado was reported 60 miles to the west in Adams County, near Corning, Iowa.
Farms and businesses were ripped apart in and around Winterset, a town of fewer than 6,000 people on the southwest outskirts of the Des Moines metropolitan region. Authorities claim that more than two dozen homes were demolished in a matter of seconds. “It looked like a bomb went off,” Sheriff Jason Barnes said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s bad. Leveled houses, trees. Just unbelievable.”
At least three thunderstorms producing tornadoes passed over the area, according to the National Weather Service, although the actual number of tornadoes has yet to be confirmed. A “powerful tornado” was likely moving extremely close to Chariton, according to the National Weather Service. In Polk County, there were additional reports of damage and injuries.
More counties could be added to the emergency declaration, which allows state resources to be used in Madison County to help with reaction and recovery operations, according to Reynolds. Initial photographs and videos of the wreckage in Winterset indicate that the tornado was at least an EF-3, with speeds exceeding 160 miles per hour. The National Weather Service stated its teams would examine further to determine the twister’s strength. After receiving the tornado warning, Wendy Burkett and her husband went outside, she said.
“And then we saw it. The tornado,” she said. “There was debris flying around, and it was getting louder and louder.” The parents and their kids scurried to their basement. A window shattered and water began to gush from the pipes as they lay on one another, attempting to avoid being blown away. Burkett estimated that it lasted around a minute. “We didn’t have a scratch on us,” she remarked, despite the fact that their home was demolished. Jenn O’Neal, a Madison County farmer, described the storm as “the scariest thing I’ve ever encountered.”
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“Our ears started popping, it sounded like a vacuum,” said Jenn in an Instagram video that shows the wreckage of barns and other buildings on her farm. “We don’t have anything left except our lives and our house but I’m grateful for that, and everything else doesn’t matter.”
The tornado struck around 4:30 p.m. local time, according to Madison County Emergency Management Director Diogenes Ayala. According to Ayala, four adults were also hurt, three of them had life-threatening injuries. Stacie Carter claimed she was driving to Des Moines with her granddaughter when she received a distressed call from her husband informing her about the tornado and urging her to return home as soon as possible. Her husband and daughter had barely made it to the basement when the wind slammed the door behind him and the walls began to collapse. Despite the carnage, she claimed to be unconcerned.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Carter, who works at Winterset Memorial Hospital. “There were people down here helping us out right away. That’s what we do here. That’s Iowa people.”