Debris lines the streets. Plywood and blue tarps cover windows and roofs.

Trees, their limbs amputated, jab at the blue summer sky.

Lunch comes via a relief van rolling down the street.

Marshalltown, Iowa, could be any Midwestern community that took a body blow from a tornado. But look below the surface, and you’ll see a tornado that was particularly cruel, say local officials and seasoned veterans of disasters.

The July 19 tornado struck a low-income neighborhood, including many immigrants, and demolished the heart of the downtown business district and badly damaged two major employers. Some people lost everything — their homes, vehicles, paychecks — and for reasons related to poverty or citizenship status, they are having problems getting back on their feet.

“This is a humanitarian disaster,” said Peter Teahen of the American Red Cross who has worked 65 major disasters in his nearly 30 years with the agency.

More than 800 buildings were damaged, according to city officials. Of those, 89 homes were destroyed and 525 sustained major damage, Teahen said.

The community’s longtime state legislator, Mark Smith, was equally grim in his assessment.

“It’s absolutely horrible,” Smith said. The state has declared a disaster, but so far there has been no federal disaster declaration. The mayor of Marshalltown met with President Donald Trump last week while Trump was in Iowa, pitching a request for federal aid.

Damage was so extensive that officials were still trying to get a handle on the extent of need in this town of 27,000, City Administrator Jessica Kinser said late last week. “We have a long road ahead.”

Those working directly with local families say there are instances where people are staying in unsafe homes simply because they have nowhere else to go, fear seeking help or have lost so much that the jumble around them is all they have left.

“It almost makes you cry, going up and down the street talking to people,” Teahen said.

Lack of insurance has been a problem as has been a lack of money to make repairs, said Teahen and others. Some people who were renting didn’t have the money to purchase renters insurance, others, including business owners, were saving up money for insurance or were underinsured.

With no insurance payment coming and a loss of income because businesses have shuttered, some people are struggling to find a way to start over.

No one was killed in the tornado, a blessing that each person interviewed recounts.

Maria Gonzalez, a Marshalltown resident who is helping with the cleanup, said conversations with friends and acquaintances affected by the tornado go like this: “I know it’s just material things, but it was everything. This was my life, this is what I’ve worked so hard to build and provide for my children, and it’s gone in seconds.”

An older woman she encountered had been living in a home that was missing half its roof and had no utilities. She was living off canned beans, Gonzalez said, before finally relenting and seeking help from the Red Cross. Another was afraid to leave her battered home for a hotel out of fear that someone would discover she wasn’t in the U.S. legally.

Marshalltown has a large immigrant and minority population, and immigration adds a layer of complexity to the recovery. About 20 percent of Marshalltown is Latino, and more than 45 languages are spoken in the local school system, said Joa LaVille of Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown.

Even some Marshalltown residents who are in the country legally have been hesitant to seek aid because they fear drawing attention to a family member who doesn’t have proper papers, said Gonzalez and LaVille.

“In the current climate, going to an agency becomes extremely scary to people,” LaVille said. 

The community got some good news last week. The Red Cross and Salvation Army said assistance will be provided to all in need, irrespective of citizenship status, something confirmed by Teahen of the Red Cross and Susan Eustice, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army.

Aid agencies have been in overdrive to meet the need. Last week, the regional Red Cross division held an emergency board meeting to discuss the recovery.

“We’re doing 1,000 meals at lunch, 1,000 meals at dinnertime,” said Teahen of the Red Cross. “This is a big disaster, a major disaster.”

The Salvation Army, which itself lost a building to the tornado, served about 16,000 meals in a week’s time, Eustice said. The faith-based agency also has found itself busy providing spiritual and emotional support, Eustice said. In two days last week, 210 families sought support, she said.

“They are seeking hope,” Eustice said.

Mark and Anne Hunsicker, Omahans who volunteer for the Red Cross, have been in Marshalltown helping out with meals.

Taking a break from their meal distribution, they said the damage was extensive.

“The saddest part is that some of the poorer sections of town were hit,” Anne Hunsicker said. “People who didn’t have much to begin with really don’t have anything left.”

Not only were neighborhoods leveled, but two of the town’s largest employers sustained damage. Between the two, the companies employed about 3,000 workers.

The JBS meatpacking plant was closed for several days but has been able to resume production. Lennox International, which manufactures heating and cooling equipment and was founded in Marshalltown, saw the tornado destroy its plant. The company plans to rebuild.

Roger Kail, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1149, said workers at the meatpacking plant lost pay for any days the plant was shut down because the tornado was “an act of God” and not covered under the union contract.

The local has put out a call to other unions for food assistance.

“Food is going to be a big issue pretty soon,” he said, but the biggest problem in the long run will be housing.

And the town’s downtown, noted for its historic charm, was severely damaged, along with key civic buildings, including the courthouse.

Teahen said more help is needed, especially financial as opposed to donated goods. Money will help kick-start the local economy, and it will allow aid agencies to focus on helping people rather than sorting through semi-loads of clothes and household goods.

“We want the heart of America to know that there are people here who are going to need help long-term,” Teahen said.

Mark Hunsicker, the Omaha volunteer, echoed that sentiment.

“This was a storm of historic proportions for Iowa,” Mark Hunsicker said. “If people can help by providing some financial aid, to whatever charity, it’s going to make a difference.”

Gonzalez and others said the tornado has brought Marshalltown together in ways not seen before.

"The most important thing people can do is reach out to their neighbor," she responded when asked how people can help. "Asking someone if they need help goes a long way. 

"We are Marshalltown Strong," she said, referring to the slogan that has become emblematic of the effort to rebuild. "We all need help, we are all people, we are all suffering through this tragedy and we just need to stick together."

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Phone: 402-444-1102.

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