FRUITLAND, Iowa – A tornado flattened dozens of homes in three eastern Iowa communities Friday, leaving an eight-mile path of destruction through businesses and neighborhoods in Muscatine.
The twister ripped away the four walls of the post office in the town of Fruitland, leaving a clear view of post office boxes and equipment inside amid piles of rubble and tree limbs. In Muscatine, a city of 23,000, some roads were closed with fallen trees and were impenetrable by car.
The tornado, with winds between 136 to 140 mph, struck the town of Grandview, went north through Fruitland and dissipated in the Muscatine area about 10 minutes later, said Jeff Zogg, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Davenport.
Several people were hospitalized, but none with serious injuries, authorities said.
Heavy rains also poured across the region, causing flooding and several traffic accidents, including one fatal wreck near Coralville.
Mark Husar, the general manager of a car dealership in Muscatine, said he saw a cloud of debris blowing in his direction and quickly moved employees and customers into a storm shelter.
"I've got 80 cars with windows blown out, two cars on top of cars, my roof is ripped off," he said. "Applebee's, which is about 50 yards away — their front window is blown out and I've got McDonald's — they're about one-and-a-half blocks away — in my lot. Their roof is partially torn off."
The ordeal lasted about 15 seconds, Husar said. Another car dealership across the street was untouched, he said.
Between 15 and 20 roads have been closed while crews repair downed power lines and clear the streets of debris, said Jeff Carter, Muscatine County's emergency management coordinator. He expects most roads should reopen Saturday.
"Some of it looks pretty bad," he said, noting that he's already seen several homes with major damage.
"Boom, they're all gone," Carter said. "Nothing but rubble is left."
Gov. Chet Culver declared a disaster emergency for Jackson, Louisa and Muscatine counties, authorizing state and local authorities to assist in the cleanup.
In Grandview, a town of about 600, oak trees were shredded in various parts of town and debris from flattened homes littered the streets. One brick house stood roofless, while a few uprooted trees had busted through a nearby garage.
Darryl Erickson, a pastor at Grandview Bible Church, said he was in his office when the twister hit.
"All of a sudden it started getting darker and I heard a lot of wind," Erickson said. "I looked out the window and saw stuff flying. And it was all over just like that."
His church sustained only minor damage and a downed power line. Nearby, a roof had landed on a pickup truck.
Pizza Hut manager Gary Hawn said had a restaurant full of customers and employees when the tornado alarm sounded in Muscatine.
He ushered everyone into the walk-in refrigerator. Moments later, it was over, he said.
Hawn said he went outside and saw debris strewn across the parking lot, including the roof of a nearby apartment complex. The signs of several nearby fast food restaurants had blown off, he said, and other debris had damaged and destroyed cars in the parking lot.
"We were lucky. The winds were really strong. We just got everybody in the walk-in, and everybody was safe," he said.
Several buildings also sustained significant damage near Bellevue in northeast Iowa, though weather officials said they have not confirmed whether that was caused by a tornado.