Recovery and rebuilding efforts are already underway at central Iowa manufacturer Vermeer, one day after the corporation's headquarters in Pella took a direct hit from a tornado. Metal siding, downed powerlines and crumpled cars were scattered across the grounds at the agriculture and construction equipment company, but with limited injuries and no fatalities, officials have said they'll come back "stronger than ever."
The tornado that plowed through Vermeer's campus in Pella around 4 p.m. Thursday was one in a series of twisters that clobbered central Iowa. The cities of Marshalltown and Bondurant also suffered damage, some of it characterized by local officials and media as "catastrophic" and "devastating."
Around the city of Pella the storm flattened corn fields, destroyed barns, ripped roofs off buildings, and downed trees. But the city's downtown, a favorite of tourists, was largely untouched. It was Vermeer that suffered the brunt of the damage in Pella, and the most severe.
While some buildings at the mile-long manufacturing campus had little to no damage, officials said at least two others are total losses. Even as repairs begin, heaps of metal siding were scattered across the grounds, crumpled like paper by the storm. Some metal sheets were wrapped entirely around cars, dozens of which were still sitting in the plant's parking lot, many with blown-out windows, some crushed by flying projectiles and the wind. Some downed powerlines remained, and everywhere there was a layer of dusty debris coating the ground and drifting into neighboring fields.
Pella Fire Chief Doug Van Gorkom said he'd never seen anything like it in his career.
"As far as I'm concerned this is the biggest thing I've ever had to tackle," he said.
First responders from multiple agencies responded to the scene Thursday, caring for some of the injured on-site. Others were treated at a hospital and have since been released. No fatalities have been reported.
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"There were eight different EMS services with 13 ambulances on scene, which was great for us," Van Gorkom said. "I just want to say thank you to all the deparments that took part in this."
In addition to quick action by first responders, local officials and Gov. Kim Reynolds credited Vermeer's internal emegergency training policies and on-site saferooms for saving lives and limiting injuries. Reynolds visited Vermeer's facilties Friday, speaking with the company's executives and assessing the damage.
“Truly, truly just a miracle that we had no fatalities, in the amount of damage that we see here," Reynolds said. "To think that we had 400 customers on-site...I think that speaks volumes of your team and how they were able to respond very quickly to the tornado and to make sure that people were safe and taken care of."
More than 400 customers were at the plant when the tornado hit Thursday for a 70th anniversary celebration. Approximately 2,700 employees work out of the Pella facilities. Vermeer CEO Jason Andringa said Friday all customers and workers were safe and accounted for.
"I couldn't be happier to report our team is safe and cared for. Our focus now shifts to getting our team back to work," Andringa said.
Andringa said the repairs will come in phases, some of which may take "a while." But as of Friday afternoon he anticipated at least some amount of production would resume at the Pella plant in a matter of days.
"We do have two manufacturing facilities that sustained heavy damage. So that's going to be a long-term project. But we feel as though early next week, we're optimistic that we can get at least some of our production back up and going," Andringa said. "And perhaps even as soon as a week from now, more than half of our production.”
It's not yet clear what the repairs and temporary closures will mean for employees and shift workers at the plant. Andringa said the company hopes to share "return to work plans" by close of business Friday.
As of Friday afternoon, Vermeer assembly worker Jason Allison had not yet gotten notice about when he may be able to return to work. He worked the first shift on Thursday, leaving the plant mere minutes before the tornado hit.
"It's an experience for sure knowing that I just missed it and work literally got hit like five, 10 minutes after I left. It's kind of scary thinking about it," Allison said.
He and his young son returned the next day with two sets of binoculars to survey the damage from behind a security barricade.
"Now coming back and looking at all the damage, it really shows you how serious it was. How bad it could've been," Allison said. "I'm curious what's going to happen with the building, if we're going to rebuild and stay strong like Vermeer says."
But after a year and a half with the company, Allison said he's optimistic.
"I've got faith in us."