The twisters swept across two counties Saturday late afternoon, ripping up farms and damaging dozens of homes in the towns of Stratford and Woodward. At least one person was killed, two were injured and a natural gas leak forced hundreds of other residents from their homes overnight.
"Half the town's gone," Bob Smith said of the destruction in Stratford, a town of about 750 residents. He said he ran from his camper as the tornado touched down about 5 p.m.
In Woodward, 30 miles to the south, 20 to 40 homes were severely damaged when a tornado hit about half an hour later, Dallas County Sheriff Brian Gilbert said. Emergency crews searched house-to-house and hadn't found any victims by evening, he said.
The storm's winds also broke windows on the outskirts of Ames, where tornado sirens had already sent college football fans gathered for the Iowa State-Colorado game running for shelter.
"We dodged a bullet with the track of that storm," Iowa State University spokesman John McCarroll said. An hour later, thousands of fans would have been packed into the stadium for the game.
Tornadoes aren't common this late in the year. In Iowa, there have been 23 November tornadoes since 1950, according to National Weather Service records.
The conditions were right, though, with warm weather and a cold front barreling through, experts said. Last weekend, another tornado ripped through western Kentucky and Southwest Indiana, killing 22 people.
Weather Service meteorologist Gary Forster said there were at least three tracks to the storm Saturday. He said teams would be sent out Sunday to determine the number and intensity of the tornadoes.
In Woodward, MaDonna Rickels and her daughter headed for the basement as soon as they heard the tornado sirens Saturday evening. They later emerged to find much of their town of 1,200 residents in shambles.
"I saw houses that were destroyed," Rickels said. "All the houses south of where we live. We must have been right on the edge of it, two or three houses away from the worst of it."
In Stratford, Scott Bergman and his father began searching for survivors. They pulled one woman from the rubble of the same house where another was found dead, he said.
The victim was identified by her family as Lucille Runyan, 82. Her daughter-in-law said Runyan's son was also among the searchers who found her. Authorities said another woman was hospitalized with a broken hip, and another person had been taken to a hospital but no further information was available.