116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A freakish combination of balmy December temperatures and brawny winds invaded Iowa, Wednesday, sparking power lines, knocking out traffic lights and spawning late-season tornadoes.
While tornadoes are unusual in December in Iowa, the state has seen six of them since 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — until Wednesday. By evening, the National Weather Service received reports of at least eight more, with forecasts there could be more overnight.
The weather service said radar had confirmed a tornado near western Iowa’s Atlantic, where a trained spotter said it crossed over Interstate 80 and left flipped semis in its wake. Tornadoes also were reported up and down western and central Iowa as forecasters predicted the worst of the storms would race across the state, socking communities including Des Moines, Ames and Mason City along its east-northeast trajectory.
The string of severe weather was moving at an estimated 75 mph or more, making it impossible for people to try to outrun it.
All of Eastern Iowa — including Linn and Johnson counties — was under a tornado watch Wednesday evening and a high wind warning until 6 a.m. Thursday.
The weather service said it got reports of 83 mph wind gusts in Missouri Valley and 81 mph gusts at the Denison Airport. Gusts in the Corridor were forecast to be a little less — about 65 to 70 mph, perhaps higher in some areas. At that speed, the winds could blow down trees and power lines and make it difficult to travel.
Although severe, the gusts were predicted to be about half as strong as the peak gusts of 110 to 140 mph the National Weather Service had estimated for the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho that hit Cedar Rapids especially hard on its way to become the most costly thunderstorm in U.S. history.
Officials in the Corridor braced for the winds, but said Wednesday they were being alert and not frantic.
Linn County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve O’Konek said during the day that emergency managers were keeping in communication with local communities in the county.
“We don’t want to be Chicken Little and say the sky is falling, but we want to pay attention to this to make sure people know what the possibilities are,” O’Konek told The Gazette.
“We’re looking at shelter preparedness in case it’s needed,” he said. “We’ve been in communication with the Red Cross and they have teams on standby if that be the case. We may need nothing or we may need everything, but we always hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
O’Konek noted that in Eastern Iowa, some of the trees may still be unstable from the derecho and could come down in the gusts.
“Certainly people are sensitive to the derecho, but I don’t want to draw any comparisons of this to the derecho,” he said. “I think people are a little bit hyper-aware because it’s unusual for December, but I don’t want people to think the sky is falling. But it’s great to be prepared.”
Around the Eastern Iowa area, schools, churches and other organizations canceled Wednesday evening activities in Cedar Rapids, Marion, Iowa City and surrounding cities.
Churches across the Cedar Rapids metro area that typically hold Wednesday evening activities were canceled.
Center Point-Urbana, Clear-Creek Amana, Iowa City Regina and Linn-Mar all canceled Wednesday evening activities as well.
According to poweroutages.us, a website that tracks power outages across the country in real time, more than 60,000 customers in Iowa were without power Wednesday evening as the severe storms crossed the central part of the state.
Electric cooperatives said they were “alert and ready” to respond to power outages, said a statement from Scott Meinecke, director of safety for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.
If residents experience power outages, they are encouraged to report them even if they think a neighbor already has.
“The more outage information your electric co-op has on hand, the better it can pinpoint the exact location and extent of an outage,” Meinecke said.
By 2 a.m. Wednesday, Cedar Rapids had already broken its record high temperature for the day, surpassing 55 degrees set in 1957. The normal high for Dec. 15 is 47 degrees. Wednesday, it was 23 degrees warmer.
But by Thursday, the high was forecast to yo-yo back down to about 36.
Not exactly, but the impacts could be similar.— NWS Des Moines (@NWSDesMoines) December 15, 2021
The strong winds today will be widespread and over a longer duration and this will be largely non-thunderstorm winds. However, wind gusts of 80+ are possible, especially with storms, later this afternoon into this evening. #iawx https://t.co/Yt7KZqXWAe
Gage Miskimen of The Gazette contributed to this report.