OTTUMWA — One year ago, Iowa was shivering through a dangerously cold period that saw temperatures in Ottumwa plunge to -21. Looking back, Tim Richmond said the county learned some important lessons from the cold.
Richmond, the county’s emergency management coordinator, said some of those lessons came into play in mid-January, when temperatures again dropped below zero.
“We revisited that a couple weeks ago when we did a warming center again,” he said.
Planning for dangerous weather this winter began almost as soon as the last one ended. Discussions throughout the year brought back lessons from the cold, and by November officials were taking a serious look at protocols for 2019-2020.
There’s a difference in planning, in having the process on paper, and needing to enact emergency plans because of weather. Late January 2019 saw record cold. By definition, that doesn’t happen often. Even temperatures like this year, when the thermometer dropped a degree or two below zero, aren’t normal. It happens every winter for a couple days, but there’s a big difference between that and days that struggle to get within 10 degrees of zero.
Richmond said Ottumwa was lucky in one respect with the 2019 cold. The power stayed on. There are easy-to-imagine scenarios when that might not be the case. In 2007 a major ice storm hit Ottumwa, knocking out power to most residents. Many didn’t regain power for several days.
Ottumwa has had ice hit since then, but nothing on the same scale. Eventually, though, a storm probably will coat everything is a heavy layer of ice. The challenge is getting people to think about what they will need in those situations before they happen.
“The reality is that these things happen,” Richmond said. “It’s hard to get people to pause for a moment.”
Complicating matters is the fact ice is harder to predict than most forms of winter weather. It requires a perfect combination of conditions. The ground level needs to be below freezing, with warmer air just a little higher up. The warm air melts snow into rain, and the cold freezes it after it splashes down. Shifts of even a degree or two are often enough to switch over to all snow or all rain, and forecasts aren’t yet good enough to always tell when that will happen.
Richmond recommended people think ahead about how they would handle basics when storms hit. Having a stash of non-perishable foods is one recommendation, but people also need to consider things like how they would recharge cell phones during extended outages.
There’s nothing like the 2007 storm or last year’s bitter cold in the forecast now. But the risks from weather will change in the coming months. Warmer weather means a return of severe storms, and their ability to knock out power for extended periods is every bit as potent as a winter ice storm.
Thanks to lessons learned a year ago, though, Ottumwa should be in a better position to respond to whatever Mother Nature comes up with.