Image: Emergency vehicles drive into Mapleton, Iowa
Jim Lee  /  AP
Emergency vehicles drive into Mapleton, Iowa, as sheriff's deputies block off the intersection of Highways 141 and 175, preventing people from entering after a tornado struck.
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updated 4/11/2011 7:36:42 PM ET 2011-04-11T23:36:42

It seemed like a Mapleton Miracle. A tornado with winds exceeding 130 mph barreled through this small Iowa town, flattening whole blocks and destroying 100 homes.

When the storm passed, more than half the town had been leveled. But the most serious injury was a broken leg.

Storm spotters who tracked the approaching twister were being credited Monday with giving residents a crucial 15-minute warning, allowing most people to take shelter and preventing the kind of tornado disaster that killed four teens at a Boy Scout camp near here in 2008.

Anytime a powerful tornado hits "and you don't have any serious injuries or deaths, you're lucky," Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. "We are just very fortunate."

On Monday, volunteers from all over Iowa streamed into town to begin cleaning up downed trees and rubble.

Tamara Adams, 37, was carrying tree branches to the curb outside her home Sunday when a stranger approached with a chain saw asking if she needed help. It was the closest thing to a "magic wand" she hoped to receive.

"Everybody's safe," Adams said. "Yeah, people are suffering now. But you've just got to do what you've got to do."

Damage-assessment teams began a street-by-street survey in Mapleton, a community of 1,200 about 45 miles southeast of Sioux City. The American Red Cross was offering health services, as well as food and water to emergency responders and volunteers.

Image: Mapleton tornado cleanup
Jim Lee  /  AP
Chase Collins works with other residents to clean up Monday in Mapleton.

Townspeople were grateful for the abundant help — and for the extra time they had to escape the storm.

Barbara Mayes, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Omaha, Neb., said scientists realized two to three days in advance that there was a strong chance of severe weather. That early notice, combined with the visual sightings and instant weather reports, created a best-case scenario when the twister drew near.

"This is a good example of the process working like we want it to," Mayes said.

Story: Midwest picks up after crippling tornadoes

About 100 Mapleton homes were destroyed Saturday evening, displacing an estimated 600 people. At least 14 people suffered minor injuries.

The storm also uprooted the huge, centuries-old trees that give the town its name. The trees were wrapped around houses and tossed on top of cars.

The weather service said the tornado was on the ground for 3½ miles and measured three-quarters of a mile wide at one point. The twister was measured as an EF3 on the tornado-strength scale, which carries wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph.

The limited injuries were especially remarkable considering a high school play was being performed when the storm struck. Sections of the building's roof were peeled off, and windows were shattered.

Story: Parts of N. Dakota 'under siege' by floodwaters

As many as 400 people huddled in the school's basement until the winds died down, Superintendent Steve Oberg said.

"It's built like a bunker," he said. "They were in there safe. Nobody was freaking out or anything." No one in the school was hurt.

Classes were canceled Monday so repairs could begin. Students were to return Tuesday following an inspection by an engineer. The school's prom, scheduled for this weekend, will go on as planned, Oberg said.

Monday's cleanup brought volunteers from far and wide, including Parkersburg, a northeast Iowa town that was leveled by a tornado in May 2008, the sheriff said.

Eight people were killed by that storm, which had winds in excess of 200 mph. A month later, a tornado with winds of 145 mph struck the Little Sioux Boy Scout ranch, about 30 miles southwest of Mapleton.

On Saturday, at least nine tornadoes touched down in Iowa, according to the weather service.

The same storm that produced the Mapleton twister also spawned six others that touched down in Sac, Pocahontas and Kossuth counties as it moved to the northeast. Damage was reported to numerous homes, farm buildings and power lines.

Two tornadoes were also reported in Ida County, including near Galva, where an ethanol plant was damaged.

"What was interesting about this is we had crossing (damage) paths," said Jeff Johnson, a meteorologist with the weather service in Johnston, Iowa. "It was a very complex system. So many things moving in different directions."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Violent weather slams Midwest

  1. Closed captioning of: Violent weather slams Midwest

    >> amid the violent weather that slammed the midwest in the last two days, the national weather service is still trying to figure out how many tornadoes touched down. they can confirm ten in this active and severe weather front. chris is with us from merril, wisconsin .

    >> it was a wild ride for the family that lives here. they found shelter just before a tornado ripped off the top of their home. they were in the basement, and it's easy to see just by looking at this that these violent storms made they mark. in meryl, wisconsin , sirens warn warned residents of an imminent threat . the arrival caught on video. once the storm had blown through, merrill residents saw the devastation.

    >> i saw my wife, i covered her. scared the death of me.

    >> fortunately, it only claimed property, no lives. a part of the same weather system had already rolled through iowa, flattening part of mapleton. damaging 60% of the town, leaving behind torn debris, shredded insulation, and damage.

    >> in virginia, two powerful tornadoes struck there.

    >> my house is gone.

    >> on the north carolina /dakota bord border, interstate 29 is still under water. portions of it closed indefinitely. adding to a springtime mixture of midwest weather that included hail, tornadoes and floods. and this is where the garage used to be. amazingly, you look at the cars, and at first look, only minor damage. now, the storm system that brought these violent storms is moving off to the east. it's going to be moving through during the overnight hours, track through, bringing the threat for damaging winds, spotty hail, and the chance for isolated tornadoes. good news as we head to tomorrow evening, the biggest threat will be rain on the east coast . we'll get a break, at least for now.

    >> i don't know how the car survived, but it seemed to. thank you very much. chris warren in merrill, wisconsin .

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