The sun was shining when Jeff McVay, a maintenance team member at Park Centre in Newton, approached the community's marketing director, Margot Voshell.
"I just got a notification on my phone that we're under a tornado warning," Jeff said.
Margot looked out the window and saw blue sky. "I said, 'Jeff, don't mess with me,'" she said with a chuckle.
Jeff was confused as well, so he called the local sheriff's department to make sure the warning wasn't a false alarm. He was told Newton was directly in the path of a tornado that had hit just east of Des Moines.
"Jeff walked over to our emergency panel and activated the alarm for a tornado warning," Margot said. "Then we went into the mode of, 'OK, we need to move people to safety, and fast."
Like other WesleyLife communities, Park Centre practices disaster preparedness and holds frequent drills, so team members were able to remain calm and "just do what needed to be done," Margot said.
For each community, "what needs to be done" in the event of a disaster involves working to ensure the safety of hundreds and residents and team members, and quickly -- a daunting task even under the best of circumstances.
"Our first responsibility was moving the Health Center residents away from the windows and into the interior hallways, and making sure everyone was reassured and knew what was happening," Margot said. "Unfortunately, just as the warnings started, we had a very beloved Health Center resident pass away. So the team was understandably upset and was dealing with those emotions and the needs of the family on top of everything else."
"We needed to make sure our Independent Living, Assisted Living, and Memory Support residents and our Adult Day participants were safe as well, and we dispatched different leaders to go to those areas," Margot added. "Everyone knew what to do, and things went well."
In the end, the tornado turned south and missed Newton altogether. Hearthstone, WesleyLife's community in Pella, fared similarly, as its four campuses were spared after also having been in the storm's path.
But the tornado that hit Vermeer Corporation in Pella was too close for comfort, touching down only a quarter of a mile from The Cottages, Hearthstone's Memory Support campus.
"Our experience was much the same as Park Centre's in that the weather looked perfectly nice, and then all of a sudden, we were under a tornado warning," Nancy Hamilton, Hearthstone's Executive Director, said. "Our teams at all our campuses did a wonderful job of staying calm and getting residents to safety, and we had no idea that a tornado was actually on the ground so close to The Cottages."
Nancy said Hearthstone's four-campus structure means she obviously wasn't able to be in each building during the storm, so she was focusing her immediate attention in the area where she was physically located: in the community's Memory Support households.
And because she couldn't see Vermeer from her vantage point, her only indication that something was amiss came in the form of a rush of wind that overtook her as she turned from one of the households in The Cottages into a common area.
"We could hear a lot of noise on the roof, and all of a sudden, there was something I'd describe as a huge puff of air that blew my hair back," she said. "My first thought was that the wind must have blown the front doors open, but we looked and they were still closed. A team member said that must have been the exact moment the tornado was passing overhead."
Because parts of Hearthstone ended up losing electricity and phone lines were down, neither Nancy nor her team members learned till later that the tornado had devastated the Vermeer plant. Nancy said although the Hearthstone community is obviously grateful its campuses were spared, its collective heart is broken for Vermeer.
"That company is such a wonderful partner to so many in Pella, and they've been such a blessing to us," she said. "We are lifting them up in prayer, and when it comes time that external help is needed, we will be there to support them."
Both Margot and Nancy credit their respective communities' disaster-preparedness plans with ensuring that residents and team members made it through the storms unscathed. They also credit team members at each community for working alongside one another to keep residents calm and informed.
"I know quite a bit already about the character of the individuals who work at Hearthstone, but this drove home the point that we have wonderful, caring team members who truly put the residents first at all times," Nancy said. "I'm grateful to God for sparing us, and but we're truly blessed every day, simply by having the team we have."
Margot echoed Nancy's words.
"It was so gratifying to see our team members working together -- housekeepers, dining staff, maintenance staff, nurses, CNAs -- supporting one another and making sure our residents were safe," she said. "We have a very special team at Park Centre."
Jacci Nickell, Regional Vice President of Network Operations for WesleyLife, said she is proud of both communities for responding quickly and "with flying colors" to keep residents safe. She also credits nurses and other team members with WesleyLife's Home and Community-Based Services for contacting each client to make sure he or she was safe during the storm.
"That's a lot of people, and our team didn't stop until everyone was accounted for," Jacci said. "To our team members, their jobs aren't just jobs. They truly care."
WesleyLife CEO Rob Kretzinger said the outcomes of the July 19 storms drive home the importance of making sure appropriate emergency procedures are in place so that each team member knows his or her role in the event of an emergency, and can perform that role automatically.
"At both of those communities, each team member knew the process and followed through with it; that speaks to the strength of each community's operations, and also to the caring and compassionate nature of the people we're fortunate enough to work alongside," Rob said.
"As we pray for Vermeer and others who experienced damage, we're first and foremost grateful that our residents and team members are safe. We're very blessed to have come out of a potentially devastating situation with all our communities intact, and we look forward to assisting those who can use our help."