FFA students assist farmers, homeowners with clean-up after tornadoes march through southern and western Iowa

Todd Blum was on the phone with his mother when a monster tornado ravaged the family farm where he was raised southwest of Harlan in Shelby County the evening of April 26.

He and his wife, Karla, had been tracking the storm from their Harlan residence a few miles away since its formation roughly 10 miles south in northern Pottawattamie County. “They’d been talking all day that we were going to have some weather coming in,” he recalled. “About the time it was at Shelby I thought, gosh, I know where this is going.”

The EF3 tornado formed near Minden and trekked north along County Road M16 . Todd recognized his neighbors’ homes through the storm trackers’ reporting from the field. His mother, Janet, was at the family farm along Hazel Road.

“Mom was in the basement and said it’s getting pretty loud, and then pretty soon I heard banging and asked what’s that noise,” Todd explained. “The door won’t stay closed; it keeps flying open,” Janet said. “I knew then either a window or door (had broken).”

Within seconds things were quiet and Janet, who had huddled in the basement, realized she had survived whatever had transpired above. 

“As soon as we knew it was north, we hammered it out there,” Todd said. “We couldn’t get all the way to the farm … Trees (were)across the road. But thankfully Mom was OK.”

What lay before them was a scene straight from the movie “Twister.”  

“There’s not a building left on the place,” Todd said. A barn, machine shed, garage and outbuilding were destroyed along with four bins and a fifth that may be salvageable. A pile of beans lay where one bin had once stood.

“I think we cut up from 12 to 15 trees,” he added. “Incredibly the house is actually in pretty good shape…, six windows gone, shingles off the roof and the siding peppered. The soffit, gutters and fascia all damaged. But we’re blessed nobody was hurt and the house is still there.”

What happened next was what makes small-town Iowa living spectacular. Within minutes, community members arrived offering to help clean up the destruction. In total, 70 properties were affected in Shelby County with 30 homes sustaining major damage.

“We’re looking at about $100 million in damages to residential, agriculture and businesses,” said Shelby County Emergency Management Director Alex Londo. “It traveled the entire length of the county from south to north. The damage is substantial.”

Hundreds of volunteers worked tirelessly for days to restore some sort of normalcy to this western Iowa community. Most fields today have been cleaned of debris, and rebuilding has begun.

“People showed up out of the woodwork,” said Todd. “Just been a blessing.”

Added Londo, “The fact that it has been picked up this quickly just shows what it’s like to live in a small community. It’s just amazing. As the tornado passed, we had cars at every house that got hit a minute after it happened.”

Above: Harlan Community students helped with clean-up in Shelby County. They were, front row, from left to right, Jacob Wendt, Blake Bruck, Grant Petersen, Mikayla Jensen, Anastacia Kay and Ashley Tunender. Back row, from left to right, Isaac Roberts, homeowner Richard Mendenhall, Lane Larsen, Izzy Cook, Daytona Butler, Kienna Wilwerding and Jaeda Youngkin. PHOTOS / BOB BJOIN AND COURTESY OF HARLAN COMMUNITY FFA

Pictured above: Audubon students Jake Anderson, Cooper Anderson, Alex Henkel and Zackary Schmidt push a wagon out of the ditch at a farm near Corning.   PHOTOS / BOB BJOIN AND COURTESY OF HARLAN COMMUNITY FFA

Pictured above: Audubon FFA member Marie Brand found Ivan Wolf’s FFA jacket in a field about one-half mile from his home, which was destroyed, near Corning. PHOTOS / BOB BJOIN AND COURTESY OF HARLAN COMMUNITY FFA

FFA help

Among those offering clean-up services were FFA students from four schools who embodied the spirit of the FFA motto, “Living to Serve.” Audubon, Glidden-Ralston, Harlan Community and Woodbine FFAs each spent days in the field picking up trees and debris for those in the tornado’s path.

Entire student bodies joined FFA students on some clean-up days.

“With the last line of the FFA motto being ‘living to serve,’ it is a no-brainer for FFA members to jump in and volunteer,” said Audubon Ag Education Instructor and FFA Advisor Brittany Elmquist. “Teaching the importance of volunteering and giving back is so important.”

Audubon FFA has assisted with domestic relief efforts statewide for approximately 12 years. Sixty Audubon High School students joined the recent tornado clean-up efforts near Minden, Corning and Treynor. “As we were leaving the home of a family that had their home destroyed, the owner said to our group that she was always helping others and now she needed help,” she explained. “It was a powerful reminder that we never know when we will need others’ help and how good it feels to do the right thing.”

Students worked together to clean a 140-acre field, help a family dig up prized hostas around a destroyed home, find treasured items in yards and clean loads of debris. “Proud is an understatement,” Elmquist said.

Harlan Community Vocational Agriculture Instructor Alex Boes said roughly 300 students and teachers held a schoolwide clean-up day where 16 damaged farmsteads were cleaned, while 12 FFA students held a second clean-up two days later.

“Students saw how being helpful helps others in need, so when they are in need they are not scared to reach out and ask for help,” Boes said. “I am beyond proud and speechless of all the hard work our members have poured into helping all those affected by the tornadoes.”

Woodbine students volunteered on farms near Pisgah, and Glidden-Ralston students cleaned up a farmstead north of Harlan last week.

Students were humbled by the experience. “Our hearts go out to those who lost their homes, livestock buildings and had field damage,” said Audubon FFA Vice President Colton Hansen. Audubon FFA President Corbin Chambers added, “I am happy we were able to help a few that were affected by the storms.

“There is still a lot of work that needs done.”

Harlan Community FFA students Ashley Tunender and Mikayla Jensen were safe in their home basements as the storm passed through Shelby County. Once they realized how much damage the county had sustained, they were happy to learn the school and FFA would volunteer in clean-up efforts.

“Giving back to the community when it is really needed,” said Tunender. Added Jensen, “This has made me realize that helping out has a really good impact.” The two cleaned up branches, dug up debris and cleaned around buildings at damaged farmsteads.

Disaster declaration

While initial clean-up has been completed, assistance is still needed, officials said. A major disaster declaration has been approved allowing for federal funding for Pottawattamie, Mills and Shelby Counties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has deployed disaster survivor assistance teams to work with storm survivors on available aid.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Small Business Administration will have low-interest loans and other assistance available for farm-related damage such as barns and grain bins. 

More than 100 bins were destroyed in Shelby County alone along with approximately 100 other farm structures.