DES MOINES, Iowa — A flurry of tornadoes swept through central Iowa Thursday afternoon, injuring at least 17 people, flattening buildings in three cities and forcing the evacuation of a hospital.
The tornadoes formed unexpectedly and hit the cities of Marshalltown, Pella and Bondurant as surprised residents ran for cover. The storms injured 10 people in Marshalltown and seven at a factory near Pella, but no deaths have been reported.
Hardest hit appeared to be Marshalltown, a city of 27,000 people about 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, where brick walls collapsed in the streets, roofs were blown off buildings and the cupola of the historic courthouse tumbled 175 feet to the ground.
UnityPoint Health hospital in Marshalltown was damaged, spokeswoman Amy Varcoe said.
Varcoe said all 40 of its patients were being transferred to the health system’s hospitals in Waterloo and Grundy Center.
The Marshalltown hospital’s emergency room remained open to treat patients injured in the storm, Varcoe said. Ten people injured in the storm had been treated by 7 p.m. Thursday, she said. She did not know how serious those patients’ injuries were.
Marshalltown resident Stephanie Moz said she, her husband and 2-month-old baby were in the downtown clothing store she owns when tornado sirens went off. The family sought shelter in the building’s basement and heard “cracking and booms and explosions” as the tornado passed.
The storm broke out a window, ruining clothing and hats on display there, and destroyed her husband’s vehicle, but she said she’s relieved.
“We went through a tornado and survived,” Moz said. “I’m happy.”
Weather forecasters said the tornadoes formed suddenly and took them by surprise.
Alex Krull, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines, said forecasting models produced Thursday morning showed only a slight chance of strong thunderstorms later in the day.
“This morning, it didn’t look like tornadic supercells were possible,” Krull said. “If anything, we were expecting we could get some large hail, if strong storms developed.”
Additional funnels were reported as the storm moved east of Des Moines past Altoona, Prairie City and Colfax.
Iowa State Rep. Mark Smith, who lives in Marshalltown, told Des Moines station KCCI-TV that the area likely will be declared a disaster area. Smith said his house and neighborhood were not damaged, but much of downtown and surrounding homes have been.
“There are houses with windows out, houses without roofs,” he said. “It’s just an absolute mess.”
Another tornado hit agricultural machinery maker Vermeer Manufacturing, where some people were still working, in the town of Pella, about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines. It scattered huge sheets of metal through a parking lot and left one building with a huge hole in it.
Pella Regional Health Center spokeswoman Billie Rhamy said seven people injured at the Vermeer plant were treated at the hospital. All had minor injuries and were released after treatment, Rhamy said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Rod Donavon said two primary storms spawned the series of damaging tornadoes. One developed in the Marshalltown area, causing damage there, while the other started east of Des Moines and traveled through Bondurant and into Pella.
The exact number of tornadoes and their strength will be determined after further analysis.
Associated Press writer Margery Beck in Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to this report.