The storm hit fast — and hard.
“We had a strong thunderstorm come through, and it strengthened off to the west of you,” said Rod Donavon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Des Moines. “Then, when it hit Wapello County, it got even stronger; from the data we’ve seen, wind gusts were 60 to 70 in some spots.”
But based on damage reports, he believes speeds exceeded 70 mph in some locations.
A few citizens told neighbors they’re sure it was a tornado that came through. The house shook, the wind roared and there was damage left behind. As far as their spotters and instruments could determine, that was not the case this time, but Donavon said he understands why people might believe there was a funnel cloud outside their house.
“It was frightening, and it lasted several minutes. That can be scary,” he said.
Especially in a pitch black basement. Across Wapello County, 11,000 out of 15,000 customers lost power. An entire business or household is considered one customer.
Sunday morning, the round-the-clock effort by line crews from Ottumwa and nearly every other part of Iowa had that number down to 5,000.
“We’ve got about 2,000 left,” said Alliant spokesman Ryan Stensland at 10 p.m. Sunday. “We expect the vast majority of those will have power restored within 24 hours.”
They are now coming across homes that are damaged on the home owners’ side of the meter, the houses’ electrical system.
“And legally, we can’t touch that. If they notice the equipment going into their home has been damaged, they shouldn’t [start grabbing at] wires themselves. Call an electrician. It may delay getting power, but can avoid a serious injury. We can replace meters, we can replace equipment, we can’t replace people.”
He said electricians are going to be very busy for a couple days, but they know how to fix such problems quickly and safely.
“Everything going up to (and including) the meter we’ll take care of,” Stensland said.
He knows people get impatient when it’s hot and there’s no fan or air conditioner.
At one point Sunday, the Southern Prairie Red Cross had a cooling shelter. The school district turned on the air conditioning at Evans Middle School, and workers stood by to welcome residents who needed to cool down with snacks and water.
Red Cross workers also went street to street. If they saw people out in a damaged area, they started handing out water. A director said that Sunday, they handed out 250 bottles of water.
Many of those neighborhoods were silent over the weekend as even the ever-present (but rarely noticed) sound of air conditioners was missing. That silence was soon replaced by the sound of chainsaws.
On Jefferson Street, a light pole crashed onto the road Saturday. One block over, Appanoose Rapids Brewing Company, a restaurant on Main Street downtown reported they could be closed “about a week” after losing part of the roof.
Also on a roof, Chief Wapello was knocked from his place of honor atop the Wapello County Courthouse. Officials say the statue has been trucked off and stored for safety.
But most damage appears to have been caused by falling branches, limbs and trees that blocked roads, hit parked cars and struck houses.
When told that it seems the heavy limbs did more damage than the wind itself, the weather scientist said that fits with this type of storm event.
“Above the ground, I’m sure the winds were even stronger [than 60-70 mph],” Donavon said.
With this type of weather, he explained, at 30 feet up, the winds very likely passed 75 mph at many Wapello County locations.
“The trees are in full canopy now; that’s more for the wind to grab onto; and that wind 30 feet up, you get winds like this, up around 75 mph, they certainly can cause damage similar to a weak tornado, and Ottumwa was smack in the middle of it,” said. “It’s actually worse damage than having a weak tornado [hit] in town because this is such widespread damage.”
There are no known injuries directly caused by the storm at this time, according to authorities. But one emergency worker mentioned that a driver who slowed to “gawk” at damage was rear-ended by another faster-moving vehicle in which the driver was looking at storm damage, not watching the road ahead of them.
Rescuers said that, unfortunately, they’d probably see more accidents like that.
Still, the cleanup continues. If you come across a utility wire, assume it’s live and stay clear of it. Experts warn working outside requires more fluid intake than you think you need. Take time to cool off, even if it’s just in a breezy, shaded spot.
Donavon, the meteorologist, said that as he looked at the forecast, he was wondering if residents would have their power back by Monday.
The weather service is predicting “near record highs,” he said, with temperatures in the upper 90s.
“And,” he added, “Tuesday isn’t looking much better.”
Taking care of debris ... and yourself
The Red Cross will decide today whether to open a cooling center. In the meantime, public spaces like the mall, the library and other interesting locations around town provide air conditioning — and something to do besides sit quietly. It may be wise to call a location to make sure they are open today. Contact the Red Cross by calling 641-682-4571.
As for clearing debris, stay away from downed lines. Alliant said they’ll be there soon; let them take care of the lines. In fact, said a spokesman, avoid anything touching the line.
The storm hit fast — and hard.
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