Storm Damages Vermeer Facility But Not Their Spirit

An aerial view of Vermeer shortly after an EF-3 tornado smashed into several buildings along the 'Vermeer Mile'. (photo by Monte Goodyk/Oskaloosa News)

An aerial view of Vermeer shortly after an EF-3 tornado smashed into several buildings along the ‘Vermeer Mile’. (photo by Monte Goodyk/Oskaloosa News)

Storms bring damage, but the people bring hope, as Vermeer works to recover from devestating EF-3 tornado.

Mahaska County, Iowa – The tornado watch for Mahaska and Marion counties went out around 3:15 pm on Thursday, July 19, 2018.

At the Southern Iowa Fair, preparations for evening activities were already being moved from their outdoor spaces and into indoor facilities. KIIC’s Wing Ding Fling Thing moved into the Free Stage, while Country legend John Michael Montgomery was being moved from the Grandstand to the Pavillion.

By 3:40 pm, the tornado warning for Marion and Mahaska Counties went into effect. Emergency plans went into effect at the fairgrounds, and the public kept a watchful eye on the sky.

At 4:01 pm, Oskaloosa News went live from near Leighton, Iowa, training their cameras to the west looking for any indications of severe weather entering the area.

By 4:06 pm, a tornado became visible in the distance, and for the next 15 minutes we visually followed the storm as it passed through Pella and Vermeer, tracking just to the west of Leighton before disappearing into the rain.

What was left behind was a heavily damaged Vermeer Corporation, and several homes and farms along the way. The tornado was rated as an EF-3, with maximum winds of 144 miles-per-hour. The damage path was up to 400 yards wide in places.

The attention then turned to Oskaloosa, as the supercell storm ripped into town. Straight line winds caused damaged to Edmundson Golf Course and caused several power lines to fail.

At the fairgrounds, KIIC’s Joe Milledge was on the air live, giving updates as the storm continued its fury.

Oskaloosa sustained minor damage compared to Pella. Mostly downed power lines, but the winds destroyed a few smaller structures, like a shed at Edmundson Golf Course.

First responders in both counties were busy with calls for help. Ambulances from surrounding communities rushed to Vermeer, where the call for help was the greatest.

Rob Hammann spoke with Oskaloosa News about surviving the direct hit to Vermeer, and his perspective now after the storm.

Hammann is a web developer working with the Productivity Tools Team, in the ACS building right behind plants 4 and 5.

At about 3:40 pm, the alarm went off, and everyone was directed to the storm shelter in the bathrooms on the first floor. By 4:00 pm, Hammann said the atmosphere changed drastically, and the power went out. “We hunkered down. The pressure changed and ears popped.”

The tornado passed, and for Hammann and those in the ACS building, the structure remained, “however the cars in the parking lot were hit with a lot of debris and sustained heavy damage.”

According to Hammann, Vermeer holds drills several times a year. “We do our best to take them serious, so we are well trained. Everyone headed to the appropriate spot and the building safety coordinator did their job in making sure no one was out and about.”

The EF-3 tornado that struck Vermeer on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Ken Allsup/Oskaloosa News)

The EF-3 tornado that struck Vermeer on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Ken Allsup/Oskaloosa News)

As the storm was ripping into the building and the rest of Vermeer, Hammann said his thoughts were with his son. “He works the graveyard shift at Holiday Inn Express, and I knew he would be deep asleep in our home in Leighton. It took almost an hour and many calls and texts to get a hold of him. He was able to get to a basement, and the storm really missed our house. I don’t think I really felt fear during the storm. I felt safe and more concerned for people in the other buildings.”

Of the injuries sustained at Vermeer, none were life-threatening, and Hammann said that no one was hurt in the ACS building.

As many describe the scene after surviving a natural disaster, a war zone is often used to describe it. “I would never diminish the chaos and violence of war… but really it was like a war zone. Many people were wandering around stunned. Most of us headed to our vehicles to assess damage and called/texted family. You could tell some people were in pretty serious shock as they were doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Some people were trying to clean up debris. It’s hard to know what to do and we are all looking for some sort of connection to the familiar.”

With gas leaks, Hammann said they were asked to leave the Vermeer campus, and he walked to the Pella High School campus with a workmate. “I was struck by several things. First, I was more emotional than I usually am. My heart ached for the executive team. What a massive burden. My heart went out to the Vermeer family. Not the way you want to celebrate your 70th anniversary.”

When reunited with family, Hammann said there were lots of hugs and kisses. “There really was a lot of processing and nervous chatter. Pre-meal prayer was much different than usual. You move into this sort of hypersensitive state. Things are more funny than usual or more sad than usual. Hugs are a bit longer than usual.”

With the power out, Hammann and his family went to Oskaloosa for dinner. “When we were leaving I ran into a fellow employee who I didn’t know. Immediately we were asking each other if things were ok. Disasters like this really can help bring people together and strengthen relationships. It’s kind of sad we can’t be in this kind of state all the time.”

Lt. Shane Cox with the Pella Police Department said that as officers arrived at Vermeer, they noticed there were a few minor injuries that were being reported. “The first thing was to work with Pella Ambulance and Pella Fire to set up a triage area.”

“Overall, at the end of the day seven people were transported to Pella Regional Health Center, and then subsequently released,” explained Cox.

Cox has been with the Pella Police Department for 18 years, and he says he’s never seen anything like this, as far as weather related. “You always hear stories about the damage a tornado can do, but I think until you actually see it, you’re not aware of the power. Just the piles of cars and the debris field and way you can see the exact path that the tornado took, is pretty amazing.”

Cox said that upwards of 200 cars that were remaining in the parking lot were being transported to another location, so the owners can retrieve their property.

With so many damaged and destroyed vehicles, many looked to rent a car to help them get by.

At the Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Pella, business was brisk on Friday morning. Emily Boehm, Branch Manager, said the extra business wasn’t for the best reasons.

Emergency personnel respond to Vermeer shortly after a tornado destroyed at least 2 buildings and many employee vehicles. (photo by Ginger Allsup/Oskaloosa News)

Emergency personnel respond to Vermeer shortly after a tornado destroyed at least 2 buildings and many employee vehicles. (photo by Ginger Allsup/Oskaloosa News)

There were enough cars to fill the demand, and more were being delivered. “We’re getting it taken care of,” said Boehm. “We are doing the best we can in the short period of time since it happened.”

“I don’t think, until you actually see it, you can comprehend the amount of damage that was done,” said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds at a press conference on Friday afternoon. “I don’t know if you can put into words what we’re seeing. It’s devastating.”

“When you take a look at the devastation and the destruction, and how quickly that can happen, there’s some silver lining also,” said Reynolds of critical parts of the Vermeer infrastructure that were left undamaged.

Reynolds spoke about the quick response first responders had to the tornado, working through the night, and are now preparing to hand responsibility back over to the Vermeer team. “That’s the kind of communication and collaboration that’s so important when we’re dealing with disasters like this.”

When speaking of the Vermeer family, Reynolds said, “there is no doubt, they will come back stronger and better. It’s who they are at their core.”

During the same press conference, Vermeer CEO Jason M. Andringa said he believes that some production at the Pella facility will be able to take place in the coming week. “In the near term, we think we’re going to be able to ramp up even more production.”

Andringa said that two facilities did suffer extensive damage, saying, “that’s going to be a long-term project.”

“It likely will be a while before the Vermeer mile is back to what it was as of a couple of days ago,” said Andringa.

Congressman Dave Loebsack was also in Pella to tour the damage at Vermeer.

Looking towards the future of Vermeer, Loebsack said, “If I know anything about Pella, and about this particular corporation, I feel pretty good about the future. They are already mobilizing folks for the cleanup and whatever relief might have to happen. I know in the community, there was a whole lot of folks that came out of the woodwork and said hey, we’ll help out.”

“What’s fortunate about this particular event, as bad as it is, is that it pretty much touched down here,” said Loebsack, who was grateful that the storm avoided residential areas. “Thankfully nobody was killed.”

“The fact that it was isolated here and so intense was not a good thing because it’s going to put them out of operation for a little while. They are already working on getting back up and running. The main focus has to be making sure all the employees are being taken care of.”

Over the weekend, Vermeer shared information about the damage, and when employees may start returning to work.

Corporate, Plant 1, Plant 2 (front office and production), Plant 3 (front office and production) and the Parts Center sustained almost no damage, and staff would start returning to work on Monday morning, July 23rd.

Plants 4 (front office and production), Plant 7 (front office and production), ACS/Test, VUT, and Global Pavilion sustained damage but are anticipated to become operational. Team members for these locations should not report to work Monday, July 23 unless contacted by their manager.

Plant 5 and Plant 6 (front office and production) sustained substantial damage, likely beyond repair. Retrieving and relocating salvageable equipment is the focus. Team members for these locations should not report to work Monday, July 23 unless contacted by their manager.

Vermeer also communicated with employees that they didn’t know when all employees would be back to work, but the goal was to recover as quickly as possible.

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