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Aware 2021: The 2020 Iowa Derecho and What Kansans Can Take From the Event

Monday, August 10, 2020 started as just another “normal” Monday for the folks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Amidst the daily hustle and bustle, the corn was nearing full maturity, and students were preparing to start socially distanced classes at the height of a global pandemic.

Nick Stewart, a meteorologist for Iowa’s News Now in Cedar Rapids, watched the weather late Sunday evening into Monday morning. A complex of storms developed in eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota and had made its way to the Missouri River by the early hours of Monday morning. Stewart was awakened by his weather radio 20 minutes before his alarm was scheduled to go off, confirming what he already knew.

“I didn’t even have to look at the radar, I knew the complex survived,” Stewart said. “Looking out the window seeing it was bright and sunny in Cedar Rapids, I knew we were going to have big problems later that day.”

During the late morning, Stewart and his photographer head out in the station’s chase vehicle to intercept the storm in the far western portion of their viewing area.

“As we’re driving west, it didn’t seem anything more extreme than we’ve chased in the past,” Stewart said. “It wasn’t until it moved into our far western county where we had a measured wind gust of 106 mph. So then, it became ‘we’re not talking 80-90, now we’re talking 90-100.'”

Stewart says once they got out into the open, they tried to position themselves in the most open position possible to stay away from flying debris.

As the winds hit Stewart’s position, about 20 minutes west of Cedar Falls, they quickly ramped up. Before they had to quit broadcasting to preserve the camera equipment inside the vehicle, Stewart’s chase vehicle had two windows blown out.

“I took my jacket off and I was holding it up to one of the windows, trying to keep out as much water as possible,” Stewart said. “I thought this might last five, ten minutes — even derechos, they don’t last that long — we were talking wind gusts of 70-90 mph for more than 45 minutes. Finally, at one point, the wind calms down, I put my hands in my face to catch my breath and they were warm to the touch. I looked down and they were covered in blood. Shards of glass were cutting my hand for 45 minutes.”

Stewart measured 99 mph winds at their location before they shut down the equipment and estimates at the height of the storm, winds were near 130 mph. Winds of 126 mph were reported a handful of miles from where he and his photographer rode out the storm and says the winds pushed their vehicle up the road six to eight inches. The National Weather Service estimated winds gusted to 140 mph in the southwest portion of Cedar Rapids.

The event was enough to give Stewart, a seasoned chaser who tracks tornadoes and severe weather across the Plains during the spring, nightmares.

“Being somebody who loves weather, I have never had nightmares about the weather,” Stewart said. “But for about a week after the storm, this howling sound that was almost like someone yelling or screaming at you, it had a deafening, high-pitched moan to it, that sound would play in almost every dream I had at night. It’s a sound I’ll never forget, a horrible, horrible sound.”

Once the storm cleared, the humanitarian crisis began to unfold. With the pandemic continuing, authorities were telling people who had been apart, to live together in areas where no ventilation existed.

Stewart says the event was largely unknown to the rest of the country for days due to other news events, which slowed the delivery of resources to the area.

“We were almost on our own for a few days after the event,” Stewart said. “People were trying to do what they had to do.”

The one thing Stewart says helped the area the most was the slower hurricane season at the time of the derecho.

“If this happened a few weeks later, we would have been dealing with power outage issues probably for much, much longer,” Stewart said. “We had [electrical] contractors coming in from Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, places that were badly hit a few weeks later.”

The remainder of August was dry and unseasonably cool for the area, a big help to those who needed to repair their roofs.

In light of not only the derecho last August but the incredible cold of last month, Stewart stresses the public is extremely vulnerable to high-impact weather events. He recommends having a two-week supply of food, water, and medications — the standard disaster supply kit. A generator is not a bad investment in times of severe wind storms, ice storms, or unexpected power outages. During the downtime, take a look around your yard for things that could be a problem, such as old trees.

Most importantly, make sure your insurance coverage is up-to-date, and you have enough coverage for your home and its contents. If you’re renting, renter’s insurance is vital since insurance will cover most losses.

Finally, Stewart emphasizes the importance of having multiple ways to receive severe thunderstorm, tornado, or flash flood warnings during an event. He says the storm knocked out weather radio transmission to the Cedar Rapids area 10 minutes before the storm hit.

The August 10, 2020 derecho tracked 770 miles in 14 hours and was the costliest severe thunderstorm in United States history, totaling at least 11 billion dollars. Power was knocked out to 585,000 customers in Iowa (nearly two million people). 20 percent of Iowa’s cropland — corn and soybeans — were damaged in the storm. In Cedar Rapids, the storm destroyed 65-70 percent of the trees, and public works crews cleaned up nearly three million cubic yards of debris.

The storm killed four people, and hundreds more were injured.

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