OTTUMWA — Historic. Unprecedented. Extremely rare.
Those were the words used by an experienced forecaster with the National Weather Service as Iowa anticipated a mid-December wind and storm event Wednesday.
Wednesday’s storm brought much of what forecasters promised. Wind gusts at the Ottumwa Airport registered 82 mph just before 8 p.m. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, Audubon in western Iowa had recorded the highest wind gust speed of 88 mph.
As the storm swept through Iowa, more than 124,000 lost power as of 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Most of the outages were targeted in northern Iowa, where storms were more severe. There were 4,257 customers without power in Wapello, 1,267 in Appanoose, 1,022 in Monroe, 385 in Davis and 139 in Mahaska.
The day marked the first time Iowa has had a moderate severe weather risk from the Storm Prediction Center in the month of December.
“We don’t really have any previous events to compare impacts,” NWS forecaster Mike Fowle told emergency management officials in a Wednesday morning briefing. “We’re in uncharted territory right now, to have not only a severe threat but to also have a ... non-thunderstorm wind impact — you don’t see those very often, this is very rare.”
Reports from the storm were just starting to roll in as the Courier went to press.
To brace for the arrival, most schools in the area announced early dismissals.
The Ottumwa Community School District announced a 1 p.m. dismissal on Wednesday, with no evening activities. Albia, Cardinal, Centerville, Davis County, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont, Moravia, Moulton-Udell, Oskaloosa, Seton Catholic, and Sigourney were among schools in Iowa dismissing early.
Organizations like the Ottumwa Public Library announced they would close at 5 p.m., and delay a kid’s science activity until tomorrow. Indian Hills Community College canceled a men’s basketball game set for Wednesday, as well.
The Iowa Department of Transportation closed two mile-long bridges in the state that cross Lake Red Rock near Knoxville and Saylorville Lake near Polk City. The department restricted travel for semis hauling overweight and oversized loads on Wednesday. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the highway that crosses the Rathbun Lake dam, as well.
Wednesday was the first time since 2019 that Wapello County had been under a high wind warning. It was just the third time in the last decade.
A tornado watch followed. Many counties experienced tornado warnings, though the Courier-area avoided those.
Storms moved quickly, at times over 70 mph to the northeast. All together, it made for a bizarre and rare event that awed forecasters.
“Very fast storm motion, some of the stronger I’ve seen in my 20 years at the weather service,” Fowle said. “Faster than the derecho that we saw last August.”
This story was developing as the Courier went to press. See www.OttumwaCourier.com for the latest updates.