MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Nate Vance walked into a backyard on Monday morning and assessed the wreckage. The remains of a garage and its contents lay in a pile on the ground — a couple of bent-up bicycles, various soda and beer cans, an entire garage door, and much more.
So Vance and his teammates started digging, but stopped when he discovered an old baseball. The stitches were loosened and the leather was falling off. Vance, a senior on the Marshalltown baseball team, tossed the ball to longtime head coach Steven Hanson nearby.
“Hey coach,” Vance said and smiled. “Game ball on Wednesday.”
Hanson laughed. Last Wednesday, the Marshalltown baseball team qualified for the 2018 state tournament, which runs this week at Principal Park in Des Moines. The Bobcats, who are seeded seventh and 20-18 overall, will play second-seeded Urbandale at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Less than 24 hours after their triumphant substate final victory over Iowa City High, catastrophic tornadoes ripped through central Iowa, including an EF-3 twister with wind speeds of 144 mph that touched down here late Thursday afternoon. There were no deaths or serious injuries, but the storm left portions of town severely damaged.
“This is going to take a while to recover from,” Hanson said. “Nobody has a specific number, but it’ll be years, not months. This isn’t going to get cleaned up in a week and we’ll all be back to normal. Many jobs and lives were affected.
“It’s staggering when you take a step back and look at the whole thing, how quickly it occurred and how widespread the impact is.”
Hanson and his players have spent the last few days helping the community dig out from underneath the disaster while also preparing for the biggest baseball tournament of the summer. The mornings are spent cleaning yards and homes of those in need. The afternoons are spent at practice — the high school and its facilities were largely untouched by the storm.
On this day, the team cleaned the yard of a former player on South 15th Avenue in the shadow of the Lennox factory, parts of which were desecrated by the tornado. What remained of the building served as a backdrop while the team cleaned up the garage, focused and undeterred, hoping to make a small difference in the town’s recovery.
“I think everyone sort of thought it was an obligation and a duty to get out and help the community a little bit,” Vance said. “At our substate final game, we had a packed house. The community supported us there, so we felt like we need to support them, too.”
‘That might just go right through my house’
After Marshalltown beat City High on Wednesday, Hanson called for his team to meet the following day at 5 p.m. to discuss the next week’s schedule. He was on the field at 4:30 p.m. and saw the storm overhead.
Five minutes later, he said, the sirens went off.
“To the west, there were blue skies and puffy clouds,” Hanson recalled. “I looked north, and there was grey. We went into the Roundhouse, and several of our players were there already. A few more were scrambling in.”
Hanson and his players weren’t fully aware of the devastation after the storm passed. A dark realization set in when a few kids pulled out their phones and saw video of strong winds blowing the clock tower off the top of the Marshall County Courthouse.
Others watched the storm on TV. Luke Appel, another senior who will play basketball at Kirkwood next year, was shooting hoops at the local YMCA when he and others were told to take cover in the locker room. He worried about his home, which was near the tornado’s path.
“They were close,” Appel said. “I got my stuff and went to the locker room, where we saw it on TV. I thought, ‘Man, that might just go right through my house.’ Fortunate enough, it missed. I started praying for the community.
“When the storms were done, I exited through the gym and the first thing I recognized was the courthouse top was gone. I was like, ‘Wow, this must’ve been pretty serious.’”
The team convened after the storm subsided. The tornado was the strongest since one of the same strength swept through Marion, Lucas and Monroe counties on June 22, 2015. At least 28 people were relocated to a shelter in Tama. Hanson told his players to go assess their own situations and to reach back out if help was needed.
Fortunately, most of the team wasn’t terribly affected. One member of the freshman squad, Ethan Wertzberger, was displaced because of extensive damage to his home, Hanson said. An assistant coach, Jeff Hoogensen, had lots of tree debris in his yard.
The team then turned its attention to the rest of the community, as did many other Marshalltown athletes. Hanson published a message on Twitter and in the Times-Republican that his team was available to help. People needed only to call his cell phone.
“When we finished up (Wertzberger’s) house, we walked down the street and started talking to this guy who said, ‘Hey, my neighbor across the street could use some help,’” Vance said. “They were an elderly couple, so we knocked on the door, and she just came to tears.
“We put in an hour with maybe 15 guys and some chainsaws and cleaned up their entire yard. You could tell that meant a lot to them, and that’s all that mattered. They were in no shape to go out and fix their yard, so the least we could do was go help clean.”
‘All of our lives are going on like usual while others are struggling to find a place to sleep’
After Vance tossed the baseball to Hanson, he took a moment to look around the neighborhood.
Surrounding houses have broken windows and torn-up roofs. Cars have busted windshields. Trees and fences are bent over or uprooted. Garages and their contents were thrown into neighboring yards. Street signs and mailboxes rested on the ground. Power lines were tangled.
Behind one house, a Lennox AC unit sat sideways.
“That’s the first one I’ve seen that isn’t on a roof,” someone said with a hint of seriousness.
As he looked, Vance’s eyes grew wide. He was in a friend’s basement on the south side of town when the storms swept through last week. He went outside afterward and thought the tornado missed Marshalltown completely.
Then he drove north, where the destruction left him speechless.
“It’s like night and day between the north side of town and the south side,” Vance said. “All of our lives are kind of going on like usual while others are struggling to find a place to sleep. That’s different to think about.
“You get a notification on your phone, and you joke that it would be cool to see a tornado. But then you come up here, and it’s not really fun and games anymore. People are crying and their lives have been changed and impacted.”
Vance and his teammates find solace on the baseball field. This summer, the Bobcats secured their third winning season in the last five years, and are back at the state tournament for the first time since 2009.
In addition to helping clean each morning, Hanson understands his team’s unique position in the community, and that perhaps Wednesday’s game in Des Moines could provide Marshalltown with a distraction from the wreckage they’ve dealt with since last week.
“It’s a phenomenal amount of carnage here,” Hanson said. “But these guys grew up together and have a lot of pride in our community. So when something like this occurs, they’re very willing to jump in and help. When we go down there Wednesday night, we’ll be focused on our task. We’re just playing baseball. That part’s easy.
“But there is a sense of pride for not just every other guy who has worn and will wear our uniform, but we also represent our community. If it provides some bit of relief for those thousand people who are suffering through this ordeal — I mean, I hope it does. I hope it gives them something to look forward to and cheer for, because they’re on our minds as well.”
It takes an hour for the team to clean up the garage pile. The players pull various objects out of the rubble — a fishing rod, a ladder, a sink bowl, some bricks, a basketball hoop, a bed frame, and more still. John Stalzer, who played catcher for Marshalltown when the Bobcats won state in 1985, assisted with a chainsaw to cut up trees, making them easier to move.
A Salvation Army truck from Cedar Rapids stops by and offers them all bottles of water. Hanson then gathers his team, tells them to go eat and thanks them for their hard work.
The players head to their cars, and Hanson starts toward his when a local neighbor approaches him. She smiles as tears begin to well.
“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you.”
Hanson smiles back.