Friday, June 29, 2012

14 years ago today . . .

On June 29, 1998, a massive straight-line wind storm swept across Iowa. It caused millions of dollars of damage and left a huge chunk of the state without power for nearly a week. Unlike tornadoes that touch down, wreak havoc and pull back into the clouds, this storm started near Des Moines and pushed east toward the Mississippi River, covering several hundred miles. Our farm was right in its path.

This was back in the day before we had internet access on all our computers at work so no one at the newspaper office saw it coming - we weren’t watching radar (now we are ALL radar addicts) and we didn’t have weather watcher alerts on our cell phones (very few of us had cell phones to start with.)

Sustained wind speeds that day were clocked at 90 mph, including a record setting gust of 123 mph, the highest wind gust ever recorded in Iowa. I remember standing in the front office, watching in fascinated horror as trees in the park across the street snapped like toothpicks. The wind was blowing so hard, the rain was falling sideways. For much of the storm, the rain was so heavy that visibility was limited to scant yards. When the plate glass window in a nearby business blew out and awnings at other businesses were ripped off, we backed away from our own big front office windows. We couldn’t go the basement, since our building doesn’t have one. (With good reason, the water table in this town is about six inches below the surface of the ground.)

When the storm moved eastward, toward our house, I jumped in my Blazer and headed after it. Or tried to. I couldn’t get out of town. Understand it takes less than two minutes to drive from one end of Marengo the other. That day, it took me 45 minutes to navigate the maze of downed trees, powerlines and flooded streets to find a clear street out of town (that's another Marengo treat, streets that flood deeply and quickly and drain slowly). Finally in frustration I drove through someone’s yard and down the sidewalk to get past the last huge tree blocking my route to the highway. (Yes, you can do this in a small town in a weather emergency and no one calls the cops.)

On the way home, a semi tractor-trailer was flipped on its side, partially blocking the highway. A neighbor’s house was missing its roof, its upper rooms laid bare like a giant’s doll house. Another neighbor’s home was twisted on its foundation. Farm buildings were shattered and everywhere, trees were down. You don’t realize how big trees are until they fall over.

Through the static crackling on the radio, I heard reports about storm damage in nearby towns. The top level of the historic brick woolen mill in Amana had been blown off. The town hall and fire station in Oxford were nearly leveled. Both are only scant miles from our farm.

I turned off the highway and stopped. What was left of the neighbor’s barn was sitting on the road. The wind had picked it up, blown it 50 yards and dropped it square on the road. I turned around and took another route home. I was getting a little frantic. I could not see our house. I could only see the ragged tangle of trees that had been our windbreak. This was in the pre-Belgian years and my two shelties, Jess and Connor, were home by themselves.

When I finally got to our lane, I had to park at the end of it and walk up to the house. The lane was blocked with broken trees and pieces of buildings. Power lines were down. The barn was smashed, the machine sheds were gone. The tops of the silos were blown off. Storm debris was everywhere.

Our house was standing amidst the rubble of trees. A couple of windows had been shattered and there was standing water on the bedroom floor from a window that had been left open just a crack that morning. I thought we were damn lucky. The dogs were fine. Jess was storm phobic to start with and that day hadn’t helped any, but Connor seemed fairly unscathed. He started sleeping with us at night, though, a habit that lasted until his later years when he couldn’t be trusted not to go potty on the kitchen rug in the middle of the night.

We spent the rest of the summer cleaning up and rebuilding. The wreckage at all three of our farms was immense, with buildings destroyed, cattle killed, grain handling facilities mangled, fences wrecked, a windmill blown over and debris scattered into fields for miles around. I don’t know how many flat tires the Farmer got while making hay that summer and later, during harvest, from running over bits of sharp metal and nails. The roof of the neighbor’s barn (the one sitting on the road) had blown into one of our hay fields and I spent hours picking up bits of shingles and their deadly sharp nails.

The insurance adjuster spent a lot of time at our place that summer, shaking his head. The insurance company would pay for the lost livestock but they needed a head count. The Farmer, his brother and dad spent a hot and stinking July afternoon moving the rubble of the collapsed barn off the bodies of the steers that had been crushed when the hay loft fell on them. For several days the line of carcasses was laid out in a makeshift morgue in front of our house before the rendering truck came to take them away. The stench was unimaginable.

Our church, St. John’s Lutheran, sits about a quarter mile southeast of our house. The windows on the north side blew out and I found bits of stained glass windows in our yard and my flower beds during the coming months. Even though the National Weather Service said it was “only” a straight-line wind event, I always felt there had been rotation in the storm near our house because the church’s stained glass windows had been blown back into our yard in the completely opposite direction the storm was moving.

Looking back on that day, it was one hell of a mess but nobody got hurt. The buildings were rebuilt, the insurance claims were paid and I probably lost weight from picking up all those shingles. Life went on. Jesse’s storm phobia didn’t get any worse and Connor was a lovely a foot warmer for the next 10 years. It was the first major weather event that sparked my interest in storms and eventually led me to taking the National Weather Service’s storm spotter training and becoming, as the Farmer likes to point out, “certifiable.”

Severe weather events are always exciting to watch or report about but I could live a long and happy life without another day like that one.


  1. That's crazy!! Do you have any pictures of all the damage? Definitely sounds like more than a straight-line windstorm.

  2. Wow, thats incredible. Im glad no one died. Poor cattle.

  3. Wow, thank you for the vivid description! I'm so glad no one was hurt. But what a disaster for farmers and their towns.

    Brendan and I had lived in IC for less than a year at that point. I was at a conference in California, and called him from there that evening. He and the dogs had spent the day in the basement due to the wind warnings, but we didn't have any property damage

  4. I read your story, then the next thing I knew the NWS was calling for a derecho to come hit Washington DC friday night -- while my son was finishing his week long camp out in the shenandoah. Luckily they had a building to retreat to, but Goshen Scout Reservation is now closed for the next week.

    The derecho was weird: there was every color of lightning imaginable. I never knew lightning came in those colors. And the lightning and thunder and was continuous. The wind was pretty bad and lasted a long time.