Iowa Storms

I’m in Iowa. It’s the annual summer trip away from the Northeast, taking the boys back to the Midwest to play with cousins and visit Grandpa, Grandma, aunts, and uncles. Bill spent Father’s Day weekend with us and then returned home to New England. We’ve had storms two of the five days we’ve been here. Bill got a great one on the Saturday before Father’s Day. My sister’s house sits atop a hill, so there is a clear 360 degree view of the sky. If there was a tornado, you would see it coming – unless it dropped from an air collision directly above the house.

Seeing black waves rolling across the sky makes me shake.

Heavy humidity combined with anticipatory stillness. Uncertainty of the oncoming wind. On that Saturday, there were no tornado warnings, only thunderstorm warnings – and a tornado watch until 11 p.m.

To me, thunderstorm warnings mean imminent thunder, lightning, some wind, and heavy rain. Back at Mom and Dad's on Monday, we watch the storms scream across the radar during a special weather bulletin. And in an hour or so it will pass. The female meteorologist gives the play by play with an assertive voice, directing viewers in its path to take cover. Avoid western walls in your house. Avoid windows. Ten miles from us, where my brother and his family live, 93 mph winds have been reported.

This storm now takes on a new dimension: It’s a derecho. Pronounced dare’-atio, this rarity produces wind gusts of a Level 1 hurricane and is often accompanied by large hail, up to two inches in diameter. It’s a straight-line storm. No spinning, just a huge mass of angry clouds making a mad sprint across the prairie skies.

I don’t recall derechos when I was growing up. Perhaps more high-tech meteorological tools have identified and can track this high-end storm. They can now predict down to the minute when communities will feel the impact of storms. This certainty didn’t exist 25 years ago; back then, on TV a red tornado warning would cover an entire county, and we would head for the basement. And wait. When it blew over, we would come up and look for damage.

In town, the sirens would sound as a warning for residents to take cover. During one of these storms, Mom and I had just stopped in to see Aunt Helen. Uncle Lee was out with the volunteer fire department watching the skyline for storms. Early day storm chasers. Our 5-ft tall aunt held a radio and listened to the dispatches between fire fighters. We walked into her house, and radio in-hand, Aunt Helen immediately ushered us to her basement. I remember the event being more humorous than scary: Aunt Helen wedged the three of us into a stall shower for a good 20 minutes. At home, we would have been playing pool in the basement. Away from windows and on the west side of the large basement.


A new day… Despite the storms, the heat and humidity has remained high – until this morning. We woke up to clear sunny skies, and a barefoot step outside the back door landed on cool concrete. No storm overnight, still the humidity broke and the temperature dropped. The calmness of the change reminds me of New England. There, with fierce humidity in the air, a polite steady wind from inland to the coast can clear the air and drop the temperature in minutes. No thunder. No storm. No derecho.

For days in New England, we watch the approach of Nor’easters or hurricanes. Thankfully, since we are several miles from the coast, in the nine years we have lived out there, we have only been in the outer circles of the hurricanes, feeling moderate bands of wind and rain. The Nor’easters’ spigots may turn on and hover over us for days, dropping feet of snow or inches of rain. Neither of these weather events unsettle me like angry, unpredictable storms steaming across the wide open Midwestern sky.