The Ottumwa Courier

January 3, 2014

Winter takes aim with dangerous cold

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Southeast Iowa isn’t supposed to see all that much snow in the next couple days. But the National Weather Service is encouraging people to prepare like they would for a major snowstorm.

Kurt Kotenberg of the National Weather Service said Iowa faces life-threatening conditions over the weekend and into the first part of next week.

“Temperatures Saturday are probably going to be in the mid-20s, then the front will start pushing through,” he said. “Sunday temperatures will hold steady, then start falling in the afternoon and really plummet overnight.

The raw temperatures are bad enough. Saturday night’s forecast low of 1 is well below normal. The really unusual part is that Sunday’s high won’t reach above 1 and the overnight low is expected to be -14.

The worst will arrive Monday, when the daytime high is forecast to be -6. The extreme cold has already prompted some school districts, including Fairfield, to cancel classes for the day.

Compounding the cold will be strong winds that will make it feel much colder. Winds of 15-20 mph are expected, and wind chills across the state could be in the -30 to -50 range.

“That’s where we get the real big weather threat,” Kotenberg said. “Frostbite … can occur within 10 minutes.”

State Climatologist Harry Hillaker also points to the winds as a major concern.

“So far this winter has been pretty cold, but we’ve not had a lot of wind,” he said.

The winds could blow fallen snow back onto roadways, making them slick. With temperatures this cold, getting stuck is a dangerous event. People should make sure they have blankets and other items in their vehicles to help them stay warm. Kotenberg even recommends taking additional steps, like telling someone when you will be back home, as a precaution against getting stuck in an area without cell phone reception.

The Iowa Storm Chasing Network usually focuses on severe weather threats. But temperatures like this have grabbed their forecasters’ attention. The site says the temperatures will be the coldest in almost two decades, with February 1996 the last time things got this bad.

Most of Iowa will see near-record lows, but forecasts don’t quite break the mark in most areas. Ottumwa could be the exception. Monday’s record is -14, the same as the forecast low Sunday night.

Monday’s forecast high of -6 probably won’t set the record, though. The lowest daytime high for that date was -8, set back in 1912. The mark is, “not out of the question,” but it doesn’t look likely, Hillaker said.

Two days in Ottumwa history stand out when talking about the lowest high temperatures. On Christmas Eve 1983, the daytime topped out at -10. The all-time record comes from Feb. 2, 1996, when temperatures crawled to -14 before sinking back down.

That cold wave still sends shivers down Iowans’ spines. Two cities, Oelwein and Fayette, saw highs of -20 in the 1996 event.

“Ninety-six was kind of in a class by itself,” Hillaker said.