WATERLOO – Rare and bizarre December thunderstorms swept across northeast Iowa and the entire Midwest on Wednesday, causing winds above 70 mph, cutting power to thousands of people and causing tornadoes.
After a day of record high temperatures in the 1970s, the storm hit Cedar Valley around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Wind speeds of 83 mph have been reported in Mason City, with winds above 70 mph across much of the state. A tornado warning was issued for Winneshiek County at 7:39 p.m., and a further warning was issued for Benton and Buchanan counties, including Independence, at 8:08 p.m. Most of northeastern Iowa was under tornado watch.
According to MidAmerican Energy, about 4,100 people in Waterloo lost power when the bulk of the storm hit Cedar Valley. But a spokesperson for Cedar Falls Utilities reported that no customers had been out of service as of 8:10 p.m.
Some 192 households initially lost electricity in Bremer County.
Tree damage has been reported by officials in Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Waverly, but no major auto accidents, floods, fires or road closures have come to their attention during or after the peak weather events.
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“There were hours of uneasiness ahead, and when the thunder and the wind came, we were a little worried,” said Kip Ladage, Bremer County emergency management coordinator. “But it just happened. It was one of those weather events that we had a lot of prior knowledge about, but we just didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”
Almost 17,000 customers in Council Bluffs and 12,000 in Des Moines lost service at 8:00 p.m. and 105,000 Iowans were without power.
Schools in Waterloo closed early Wednesday in anticipation of the odd weather, and some companies have sent employees home earlier. Cedar Falls schools had already planned an early exit.
The chaos of the Midwest
The unusual storm system swept through the Great Plains and Midwest on Wednesday, shutting freeways in western Kansas, spawning numerous tornado warnings in Nebraska and raising concerns about fires due to unusually high temperatures.
The strong winds raised dust that reduced visibility to zero west of Wakeeney, Kansas, the state Department of Transportation said, and caused at least four tractor-trailers to overturn. Kansas officials have closed Interstate 70 from the Colorado border to Salina, as well as all state highways in nine counties in northwestern Kansas.
The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for several counties in eastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas / northwestern Missouri on Wednesday afternoon. Ryan Pfannkuch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Hastings, said unconfirmed tornadoes had been reported south of Hastings and near Aurora.
The system followed devastating tornadoes last weekend that swept through states like Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people.
The National Weather Service has issued a strong wind warning for an area stretching from New Mexico to upper Michigan, including Wisconsin and Illinois. Gusts of up to 80 mph have been recorded in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas. The weather service said an automated observation site in Lamar, Colo. Recorded a gust of 107 mph Wednesday morning. Wind gusts of 100 mph have been reported in Russell, Kansas.
Greg Butcher, the administrator for the city of Seward, Nebraska, said he was standing in his town hall office Wednesday when he saw a giant wall of clouds rolling towards him. Butcher said he had prepared for a major blow, but so far the worst damage appeared to be a few knocked over telephone poles.
“We were lucky,” said Butcher. “It happened very quickly. “
Authorities also warned of a dangerous fire risk along the western edge of the weather system, where conditions were dry.
A wildfire prompted Sheridan County officials to evacuate a few homes near Quinter in northwestern Kansas. Emergency Management Director Don Koerperich did not have an estimate of the scale of the fire, but said: “I’m glad it didn’t happen near a city. Other fires have been reported in Russell and Ellis counties.
Scientists say extreme weather events and warmer temperatures, just like what’s happening, are more likely to happen with man-made climate change. However, scientifically attributing a specific event like this storm system to global warming requires specific analysis and computer simulations which are time consuming, have not been performed and sometimes show no clear connection.
“I think we must also stop asking the question of whether or not this event was caused by climate change. All events today are magnified by climate change, ”said Victor Gensini, professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University. “We have to ask ourselves: To what extent has climate change played a role and what was the likelihood that this event would occur in the absence of climate change? “
The unusually warm temperatures on Wednesday were due in part to record-breaking ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which would not have happened without global warming, said Jeff Masters, a Yale Climate Connections meteorologist who co-founded Weather Underground.
“This record heat helps fuel today’s storms with heat and moisture, increasing their potential for damage,” he said.
Destructive winds were likely to knock down trees and power lines, leading to power outages, the National Weather Service warned. Some schools in Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa have either canceled in-person classes or closed earlier.
Authorities in Ashland, Kansas, cut off power to the city for a few hours to reduce the risk of fire after power poles fell.
The system blew across the Colorado plains, where high winds cut power, closed roads and highways, and delayed or canceled hundreds of flights. The weather service said a 100 mph gust of wind was recorded at the Air Force Academy airfield in Colorado Springs.
Blaire Brush, spokesperson for the military academy, said the windows of cars and buildings were smashed during the storm. She did not know if the windows had been shattered by objects blown by the wind or by the force of a gust.
On nearby Interstate 25, more than a dozen tractor-trailers blew in winds of up to 90 mph, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
In the southwest, high winds destroyed power lines in Shiprock, New Mexico, cutting off power to residents of the Navajo Nation.
The blast of dust significantly reduced visibility in the Texas Panhandle, where Sherman County Sheriff Ted Allen said all roads in and out of the county were closed. In the Oklahoma Panhandle, the state Department of Transportation reported that the main road north of Boise City to Colorado had been closed due to collisions and downed power lines.
The winds and storms were to move quickly east, Thies said. After that, forecasters expect temperatures to drop, with temperatures below freezing in the northern plains.