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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘A completely different town now’: A community reels from a deadly tornado

The aftermath of the tornado in Greenfield, Iowa on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Multiple people died in Greenfield, population 2,000, where search and rescue efforts were continuing on Wednesday. (Tim Gruber/The New York Times)

By Mitch Smith, Ann Hinga Klein and Leah McBride Mensching

The tornado had just hit Greenfield, Iowa, and residents were already using skid loaders to clear streets. With the hospital damaged, they took the wounded to a medical triage center at the local lumberyard. And across western Iowa, paramedics and police officers were speeding toward the small town to help.

“Everybody became little makeshift ambulances,” said Ray Sorensen, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives who lives in Greenfield, and who said he helped with the rescues after racing back to town shortly after the storm hit Tuesday afternoon. “We pulled a guy from the rubble and put him on a little makeshift stretcher that we made, threw him in the back of a truck.”

On Wednesday, the roughly 2,000 residents of Greenfield, 60 miles southwest of Des Moines, began to get a clearer look at the destruction all around. Gov. Kim Reynolds said some areas had been “flattened into debris,” and the National Weather Service reported “at least EF3 damage” in the town, using the 0-to-5 rating system for tornado severity.

State officials said Wednesday evening that four people in the Greenfield area had died and at least 35 more were treated for injuries. In nearby Adams County, another person died from storm-related causes, the medical examiner said.

Around Greenfield, the scenes of destruction began abruptly, with lush green yards transitioning into the chaos of splintered lumber and lawns littered with household items — a cooler, a sink. Outside the local hospital, shredded tree branches were scattered across a lawn and a board had shattered the window of a parked car. Longtime residents stared at battered homes, some damaged beyond repair.

“It was just a little house,” said Jane Woodside, a retired high school instructor. “But I loved my little house.”

The damage was as vexing as it was immense — some homes were reduced to slabs, while others were essentially untouched. The tornado had taken Woodside’s roof and blown out the windows on her home but left a rosary unscathed next to her favorite chair. The celery she had been chopping just before the storm sat undisturbed on the kitchen counter.

Many in town said they had been warned of the danger by tornado sirens or emergency alerts on their phones. When the storm blew in late in the afternoon, it overwhelmed the senses.

“Just, the pressure change — our ears popped and it felt hard to breathe,” said Sarah Wildin, an assistant manager at a gas station, who rode out the storm in her basement and whose ground floor had significant damage. “It sounds worse than a freight train. People always say it sounds like a freight train. I mean, I guess that’s the closest thing you can describe it to, but there are really no words in the human experience.”

As rescue crews sorted through the wreckage, residents were beginning to reflect on a proud community that was indelibly changed. Sorensen, the state legislator, said “it’s a completely different town now.” The business where he gets his oil changed, he said, had been “completely flattened.”

“The devastating part is like, Did we lose these great, great business owners, these great people?” Sorensen, a Republican, said in an interview. “Are they just going to pull up stakes because it’s just too much to come back from something like this?”

Across town, the branches of old-growth trees that remained standing were filled with twisted pieces of metal, items sucked out of homes and debris. Much of their bark had been ripped off. Cars and trucks were totaled, their windows blown out and exteriors smashed. Other vehicles were no longer where their owners had parked them.

Raymond Young said he was in his neighbor’s garage talking Tuesday as the tornado approached. He said he ran down the stairs into his friend’s basement just in time.

“It was five to 10 seconds, and then his garage was gone,” said Young, who is retired, and whose own home was knocked off its foundation. “If we’d have waited five to 10 seconds, we’d have been dead.”

Kendalyn Huff stood outside the Tiger Drive-In on Wednesday morning, a restaurant that she runs with her husband, welcoming people who crossed a debris-riddled lot to take her up on an offer of free refreshments.

“We’re going to give ice cream away and soda because it’s all we can do,” she said.

Huff said her home sustained only minor damage, but she choked up as she spoke of a family member who she was told had died after being crushed in another house.

It has been a particularly brutal spring in Iowa, which is still recovering from an outbreak of tornadoes last month that caused extensive damage the small town of Minden, about 70 miles from Greenfield.

“I was just in Minden,” Reynolds, a Republican, said at a news conference Wednesday, “and that was horrific. And I think there’s even more debris and just more impacted here. So it is just horrific. It’s hard to describe until you can actually see it, the devastation.”

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