Windstorm events ripped through northwest Oelwein shortly before 7 p.m. and touched down in rural Fairbank about 6:30 p.m. the evening of Saturday, March 28, local officials said.
In Oelwein, winds caused damage at The Meadows Apartment Homes in the 400 block of 13th Ave. NW.
The Red Cross is sheltering 10 to 12 families displaced by the storm damage at the apartments at various locations, Fayette County Emergency Management coordinator Lisa Roberts and Oelwein Mayor Brett DeVore said.
“They were put up at a couple of local hotels,” DeVore said, and that local restaurants volunteered to donate gift cards to those displaced until they can get resettled.
Saturday’s strong storm that hit portions of the west edge of Oelwein ripped a four-stall garage off its foundation at The Meadows apartment complex, exposing George Infeld’s possessions, along with some of his neighbors,’ and scattering pieces into the soggy field next door.
“Some of it was valuable and some was just stuff,” George said, looking through his rain-soaked belongings. He lifted the trunk lid of his black Pontiac that stood amid the boxes and plastic bags and began filling it with some of the loose items. The car was not heavily damaged, however, a family member who looked it over discovered the windshield washer reservoir had been sucked dry.
“We thought that was kind of a weird thing to happen,” she said.
George said it will be a while before he knows how much is lost or damaged. One thing he is thankful for is the foresight to take out renter’s insurance, which he did just last month.
“I think I made a good decision there,” he said with a wry smile. “I think we’re all pretty lucky. This could have been a lot worse.”
Also nearby, Red Gate Park suffered extensive damage as did Woodlawn Cemetery just north of it.
“Red Gate Park is heavily damaged,” said Oelwein Utility Supervisor Vic Kane. “Looks like most of the trees are down, the shelter is damaged.”
With many trees down in the cemetery, it wasn’t clear if headstones were damaged, he said.
“We’ve had a great response,” DeVore said, from businesses assisting the displaced to people showing up to help remove the tree debris “with chainsaws at the cemetery.” The area’s representative, Ward 2 Councilman Warren Fisk, joined the cleanup effort at the cemetery for several hours on Sunday, DeVore said. There were several crews working and may have been other officials.
“I cannot thank people enough for the hard work volunteering,” DeVore said. “The event has shown how the community can come together.”
“The biggest thing is there were no injuries,” DeVore said. “Property can be replaced. Lives cannot.”
The storm blew in north of the water tower, Kane added.
“It was more a tornado than straight-line winds,” Oelwein Fire Chief Mike Hillman said, noting debris “was thrown in different directions, not a straight line.”
Oelwein firefighters were on scene for a little short of two hours, responding first to The Meadows apartments and then to shut off a damaged liquid propane tank from which fuel was escaping at a house outside of town along 13th Avenue NW/R Avenue, Hillman said.
Residents of the The Meadows Apartment Homes were able to take shelter in the basement and no injuries were reported “thank God,” said Roberts after speaking with Hillman.
The MercyOne Ambulance was dispatched to the scene, and they do their own report, but Hillman was “pretty positive” they didn’t transport anyone.
“It’s a good thing everybody was safe,” Hillman said.
Two utility poles and power lines were downed near Arlington Place, and Alliant Energy was working on repairs.
Kane said a building at Arlington Place, other than the main building, had some damage.
Traffic patterns may be affected owing to safety blockades.
The former Meadow Mist Motel that was on Highway 150 just north of Oelwein had a lot of damage, Roberts said.
The emergency alert sirens were set off timely. Credit goes to the city of Oelwein staff, Hillman said.
Former Oelwein mayor Peggy Sherrets says her neighborhood is intact, but the scene at the cemetery is heart-wrenching.
Sherrets said she went downstairs in the basement as soon as she heard the sirens.
“I was in the tornado in 1968 and that was bad, several people were killed,” she said. “Once you’ve been in one, you don’t take things lightly any more.”
The storm also caused damage just prior some three miles southeast of Fairbank, such as to grain bins and outbuildings along Dillon Avenue south of County Road C-57, Fairbank Mayor Mike Harter said, after speaking with Fire Chief Brad Gordon.
No injuries were reported by the Fire Department in the Fairbank area, Harter said.
Hillman noted that although the police had the roads blocked at the scene in Oelwein, traffic was heavy getting there owing to the amount of spectators who seized on the excitement. The storm occurred amid a time of social distancing that officials have recommended to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Those responding at the scenes included Oelwein Fire Department, city of Oelwein staff, Oelwein Police Department, Fairbank Fire Department, Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, Fayette County Emergency Management, MercyOne Ambulance, Alliant Energy, Iowa Department of Transportation and Iowa State Patrol.
Oelwein city staffer Jack Potter discusses the damage with Kunkle on Facebook Live at https://www.facebook.com/YourLocalODR/videos/214878399575574/.