It’s not too much of a stretch to say the county’s emergency management coordinator, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army saved lives this week by opening the emergency warming shelter.
The week’s bitter cold broke several records. You have to go back at least decades to find comparable temperatures, even longer in some cases. The Midwestern Regional Climate Center’s records show only 11 days in which the temperature has dropped lower than -20 degrees, and two of them were this past week.
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s low temperature of -21 is in a seven-way tie for the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ottumwa. The all-time record for Ottumwa, if you’re curious, is -27. It was set 23 years ago Sunday.
That’s not just dangerous cold. When it dips like that, you’re not talking about the risk of frostbite to exposed skin if your’re outside for a half-hour. That level is life-threatening. People died this week because they didn’t have shelter.
That didn’t happen in Ottumwa, and the people who pulled together the warming shelter deserve a great deal of credit for it. To the folks who manned the shelter and made sure the people who needed it had access and safety, thank you.
Fortunately, Iowa doesn’t get this kind of weather often. Sure, winter gets cold. But not like what we’ve just seen. And the 70-degree swing between midweek and Sunday, followed next week by subfreezing temperatures, is enough to give anyone a bad case of weather whiplash.
The fact Ottumwa had a much-needed warming shelter wasn’t luck. It wasn’t entirely planned, either. This solution was brought together in very short order. Had communications gone differently, had people been unavailable to plan, it’s entirely possible the outcome could have been different.
That’s why we hope officials will take a hard look at creating permanent, formal plans for how to deal with temperatures that dip below a certain threshold. They won’t be needed every year. But experts are warning the next round might not be two decades away.
Scientists currently believe cold like this arrives when unusually warm air at the poles moves high enough, fast enough to disrupt the vortex that naturally forms during polar winters. The disruption can cause part of the air to wobble, effectively breaking off and wandering much further south than normal.
It’s called “sudden stratospheric warming,” and the government takes it seriously enough that the Climate Prediction Center monitors the possibility. They now understand it well enough that some were predicting a mid- to late-January cold snap almost a month in advance.
If they’re right, if these events do in fact become more frequent, we’re going to need plans for a warming shelter again.
For the moment, we hope the people who helped this week can pause and take a very well-deserved bow. After that, though, it’s time to start ensuring that we’re ready for the next arctic outbreak.