Less than 36 hours after a tornado swarm struck Iowa and killed at least seven people, including two young children, fresh snow blanketed the destruction Monday morning as biting winds pushed AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperatures into the single digits. Forecasters say Mother Nature could deliver another bitter blow of snow and cold later this week, adding further hardships to residents left picking up the pieces.
The outbreak of severe weather over the weekend spawned a preliminary count of more than three dozen tornadoes on Saturday across Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana. To complicate matters further on Saturday, the National Weather Service (NWS) suffered technical difficulties that caused delays in disseminating tornado warnings as the extreme weather threat escalated. And by Monday, a widespread 2- to 4-inch snowfall with locally higher amounts blanketed much of Iowa, the hardest-hit state.
The towns of Winterset and Patterson, Iowa, located to the southwest of Des Moines, suffered significant damage as at least three tornado-producing thunderstorms ravaged the area Saturday afternoon. Initial assessments by the National Weather Service NWS revealed that the damage was caused by a tornado of at least EF3 force, meaning wind speeds were as high as 136-165 mph. However, on Monday, the NWS said the tornado was in fact an EF4 twister with peak winds reaching 170 mph.
The massive tornado had a width of 800 yards and traveled nearly 70 miles, creating the second-longest tornado path in Iowa since 1980. It was also the first EF4 tornado to touch down in Iowa since 2013.
Two children under the age of five and four adults were among those killed by the twister in the town of Winterset, with another reported fatality in Lucas County, Iowa, making this the deadliest tornado to hit Iowa since 2008, according to the Des Moines Register.
Drone footage captured on Sunday showed the path of destruction the EF4 tornado cut through Winterset, a small city that's home to a little more than 5,000 residents. Homes could be seen with roofs ripped off and debris scattered in all directions. Some houses were almost completely leveled by the twister, the video showed.
Tornado warnings that were sent out by the NWS on Saturday as the severe weather ramped up were delayed anywhere from two to seven minutes, the NWS said Monday in a statement given to AccuWeather.
"The communications delay stemmed from a damaged fiber optic cable that serves our Dallas-Ft. Worth forecast office, which is co-located with a river forecast center," Susan Buchanan, NWS director of public affairs, said in an email. The glitch caused "that office to switch from its primary, land-based communication network to a backup satellite-based network that serves every NWS field office," Buchanan continued, adding that the result was a "brief backlog across multiple offices."
By early Saturday evening, internal communications showed that meteorologists at the NWS were aware that there was "up to a 10-minute delay with products disseminating" weather watches, warnings and advisories. The memo was sent from the NCEP in College Park, Maryland, and by Sunday morning, a second memo had been sent to NWS meteorologists saying that the problem with delays had been resolved.
According to Buchanan, the Des Moines forecast office was aware of the delay and meteorologists there "took the precaution to issue warnings earlier than they normally would have under similar circumstances to compensate and ensure that warnings reached the public in a timely manner."
Inside AccuWeather's forecasting department, the delays raised concerns over implications for public safety during severe weather outbreaks.
"Delays in the NWS distributing tornado warnings to the public, especially of between five and 10 minutes is very problematic because it means that people relying on government warnings have that much less time to seek safe shelter prior to the tornado reaching their area," AccuWeather Senior Vice President of Forecasting Jonathan Porter said. "These delays may have contributed to complexities in how people and businesses reacted to the immediate tornado threat in the affected communities."
Buchanan emphasized that "warnings went out immediately with no delay over EAS and NOAA Weather Radio," and added that warnings issued by the Des Moines NWS office had an average 20 minute lead time. The national average lead time for tornado forecasts is 10 minutes, Buchanan said.
Des Moines International Airport was in the path of the tornadic storm as it moved to the northeast, threatening air traffic and those inside the airport. As the dangers of the storm became clear, the airport decided to stop all air traffic and evacuate everyone to tornado shelters under the airport.
Dramatic footage from a traffic camera showed the fury of the thunderstorm along Interstate 35 near Cumming, Iowa, with headlights from an oncoming vehicle barely visible due to the wind-driven rain.
After impacting the Des Moines metro area, the tornado headed toward the northwest side of Newton, Iowa. While the storm was crossing I-80, a semi-truck flipped over just west of Newton as the tornado-warned cell moved through.
The tornadic storm was seen crossing Interstate 35 near Cumming, Iowa, on March 5, 2022.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Madison County late Saturday night to deploy state resources to assist with response and recovery efforts.
"Our hearts go out to all those affected by the deadly storms that tore through our state today," Reynolds said. "Our hearts ache during this time, but I know Iowans will step up and come together to help in this time of need-they already are."
Reynolds toured the damage in Madison County on Sunday, calling it "absolutely heartbreaking" to see the destruction in person but stating that the "outpouring of support from volunteers" was "even more overwhelming" to witness. Fifty-two homes were damaged or destroyed in the county, according to The AP.
Tornado damage can be seen in Madison County, Iowa, on Sunday afternoon, March 6, 2022. (Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds)
In a dramatic reversal of the seasons, Mother Nature hit those relief and volunteer efforts hard at the start of the week as winter descended upon the region with snow falling amid 20-degree temperatures. The wintry weather forced the Madison County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency to delay debris removal operations.
"Roads are still snow-covered and we do not want volunteers to be injured due to not knowing what is under the snow," the agency said on Twitter, adding that they would reevaluate Tuesday's operations on Monday night. The agency later reported that it would resume debris removal and cleanup operations on Tuesday and would be open for anyone who would like to volunteer.
Cleanup and recovery may again be hampered later on this week, AccuWeather meteorologists say, as yet another storm with snow and a reinforcing wave of cold air is expected to arrive Wednesday night into Thursday. In addition to facing a fresh covering of 6 inches of snow or more, those left without proper shelter will endure daytime temperatures no higher than the 20s F later this week, with overnight lows plunging near zero F.
As the weekend progressed, the severe weather shifted southward and become much less extensive in coverage and number of reports. In total, four tornadoes were confirmed on Sunday, with three sweeping through Arkansas and one in Missouri.
One tornado injured five people and damaged two homes and several trees east of Zion, Arkansas, a small town about 120 miles north of Little Rock, on Sunday evening, and structures were also reported damaged north of Dover, about 80 miles northwest of Little Rock.
On Monday evening, a second EF-1 tornado was confirmed by the National Weather Service to have hit Arkansas. The tornado occurred at around 2 a.m. local time on Monday morning in southwest Arkansas County. Maximum winds of the tornado were estimated to be between 86 and 110 mph.
Video footage showed a tornado swirling through nearby London, which is within 15 miles of Dover. The tornado left several flattened structures, twisted metal and uprooted trees in its wake.
Porter said that a solution for the warning delays caused by the technical glitch is of urgent importance. "This is a topic, with Saturday being the latest example, that should be immediately prioritized due to the potential impact on lives and property if public safety warnings from the NWS are delayed or fail to be delivered," he said.
Buchanan, the NWS public affairs director, told AccuWeather that the agency is looking to immediately implement "procedural changes to avoid a repeat" of what happened on Saturday -- even a potential short-term option could be deployed before a more sweeping change can be made.
"The deadly tornado outbreak in Iowa on March 5 was heartbreaking," Buchanan said, "and our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones."
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