Gone With the Wind: Iowa storm destroys crops, trees, structures
for Tri-State Livestock News
Severe weather was predicted for August tenth in central Iowa and high winds were expected. But no one expected hurricane force winds driving across several states, flattening corn fields, grain bins and trees. Damage began in eastern Nebraska and intensified in central and east-central Iowa, continuing across Illinois and Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. Over half a million people in Iowa were left without power, including over one hundred thousand homes and businesses in Des Moines alone. Tens of thousands of Rural Electric Cooperative customers were also affected; as of Friday, more than 180,000 Iowans were still without power and it may be days or weeks until it is back on.
“Derecho,” a Spanish word meaning straight, is a meteorological term for a storm producing straight line wind gusts at least fifty-eight miles per hour leaving a path of damage over a distance of at least two hundred fifty to four hundred miles. While there was a decent chance for scattered severe storms, no one anticipated anything quite this enormous. Wind gusts of over seventy miles per hour, up to one hundred twelve miles per hour were clocked throughout the storm’s path. These wind speeds are comparable to a hurricane or an F-1 tornado.
Roger Riley, native to the Norway, Iowa area, is a reporter and storm chaser for WHO News out of Des Moines. He was working on a couple of projects from home on Monday and said he had not been given an assignment to be prepared to document this storm. The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center had only issued a level 1 out of 5 “marginal risk” of severe weather for the day. Riley happened to go outside midday and noticed the darkening sky and ominous feel to the atmosphere. He decided to set up his video camera in his car just in case, and then his phone started to go off with storm warnings. He left his house just as the wind was picking up.
“The tornado sirens went off just as I drove away,” Riley said. “I got about two miles from my house and the trees were moving so violently that I thought a funnel must be about to drop down right on top of me.”
Riley documented the damages from his hometown area in Benton County a couple of days later: grain bins, barns and sheds swept from their foundations, dropped on houses or scattered across fields, a Harvestore silo bent midway at a right angle, flattened cornfields quickly turning brown, the steeple of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Norway broken off, trees uprooted, hundreds of power poles down.
Lance Kooiker, Boone County, Iowa Emergency Management Coordinator, said that while there was a high potential for high winds in the area, no one was expecting 100 mile per hour gusts. Emergency response plans were put to the test with over two hundred calls for service in the first six hours, not counting calls received for the same issue. Even after tripling staff at the communications center they were overwhelmed with calls and dispatching. Radio communications were compromised and cell communications went down initially. First responders had issues in communications and with radios malfunctioning and were maxed out in responding to calls.
Power lines and trees were down all over the county, motorists were stranded in their vehicles due to downed power lines, semis were blown over, structural damage was reported, heavy crop damage occurred, and four bins were destroyed at the Co-op in Luther.
Boone County is just one small part of the picture. Governor Kim Reynolds issued disaster proclamations for twenty Iowa counties on Tuesday and that number may change as damages are assessed further
Approximately 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans, were affected by this storm, whose path cut a swath through the heart of the heartland. Grain storage across the area was also damaged severely. The state agriculture department reports that 3.57 million corn acres and 2.5 million soybean acres were likely the hardest hit.
Farmers have never seen anything quite like it.
Dave Schmidt, Amana Iowa, has spent most of the week cleaning up downed trees and debris on his farm and for his neighbors. He had to carry water from Amana in barrels to his sheep for a few days until his power was restored. He was getting ready to go to work when he heard the wind pick up and it started raining and hailing.
“I looked out and the trees were completely bent over,” he said. “I watched for a little and then went to the basement.”
He didn’t make it to work that day. Only about thirty hundredths of rain fell but the winds lasted around forty-five minutes. When he looked out again the world had changed.
“I fared pretty well compared to most,” Schmidt said.
He had to use his tractor to get an evergreen tree from his yard off the highway before he could leave home. Since then he’s been picking up the pieces at his place and using his tractor to help neighbors who suffered worse damage.
“It was worse to the north of my place,” he said. “One neighbor’s hay shed where he stores big square bales went, his machine shed went, his farrow to finish hog barn is almost totally gone, his Quonset is three quarters of a mile from his place in a neighbor’s corn field and he has over a hundred trees down in his shelter belt.”
That is the story of Iowa’s farms in the wake of this storm. Buildings are scattered over the fields, a year’s work is laid waste, a lifetime of labor is waiting for someone to pick up the pieces. It’s too early to tell how much of the crops might recover sufficiently to harvest something.
“Some of the corn is at a forty-five degree angle,” Schmidt said. “There’s a lot that snapped off about six inches from the ground and it’s already turning brown.”
Riley said that if crops have a lower yield due to the damage it will still be difficult to find a place to put the grain because so many storage facilities were damaged.
“I’ve seen a lot of brand new bins that were completely crushed,” he said.
Iowa has been the nation’s top corn producer for twenty-six years, with 2.58 billion bushels harvested in 2019, accounting for about one sixth of the total crop. Between crop losses and structural damage the storm has likely had a multi-billion dollar impact on Iowa’s farms.
“Never in my law enforcement career have I had to set off the sirens for seventy mile per hour straight winds,” Lance Kooiker said, “And definitely not winds like this over a multi county, multi state area. I hope this is a once in a lifetime event.”
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