City battles windy woes

Severe thunderstorm results in wind gusts in excess of 50-70 mph, knocking out power to entire town


West Liberty was hit by a severe thunderstorm on Tuesday evening, May 21, during which wind gusts in excess of 50-70 mph knocked out power to the entire town.

Thousands of tree branches, a few entire trees, and several powerlines were knocked down during the worst of the storm, from 7-7:30 p.m., which also dumped rain.

Meanwhile, the ceiling of the gym in the school elementary building suffered severe damage, causing water to pour inside the building.

Soon after the storm, city crews were out in full force, clearing streets of debris and restoring fallen powerlines. It was a herculean effort that took all night long.

“Everybody was checking in, everyone was safe, nobody got hurt, nothing was broken,” said Public Works Director Adam Reinhardt. “They all busted their butts out there all night.”

As soon as the storm hit, it was obvious this was going to be a big one. Shortly after, the city posted on Facebook: “PLEASE stay away from power lines that are down! It is not safe to be out and about as crews are working.”

“Please allow crews to search the power lines and work on clearing streets,” continued the post. “The crews are working as fast as they can, but safety is a priority.”

According to Electrical Superintendent Cody Franklin, his crew was able to restore power to the wastewater treatment plant feeder around 11 p.m., bringing a portion of the city back online.

They encountered a bit of a hiccup at first, when a stray branch on Columbus St. caused the entire circuit to trip, but they removed the branch and had it back up in 30 minutes. 

After that, they worked to restore the feeder on Clark St., an endeavor that took them until around 3-4 a.m. before they could fully restore power to the rest of the city.

“I’ve spent my career doing a lot of storms,” says Superintendent Franklin. “I think the guys did a great job out there; I was very happy with them. We came in and nobody in town had power; every circuit I had was out.”

“But by 7 a.m., the start of business hours on May 22, all the feeders were on, and business was operational,” he added.

He estimates around 20-30 primary lines and nearly 50 secondary lines were torn down or affected by falling tree branches and debris. So, how do you find that many lines?

“It’s a lot of driving around, walking through backyards, plus this was in the middle of the night, so we were doing all this with our spotlights and flashlights,” says Supt. Franklin.

City crews started on Third St. and the highway, working alongside the fire department, to start clearing roads, many of which were made impassable by massive branches.

Calhoun St. and Sixth St. were among other roads smothered by tree branches; it took city crews most of the night and into the morning to ensure all streets were safe.

“There was just a lot of it,” says Director Reinhardt. “I will be removing 16 city trees due to damage from the storm,” he says.

He had to send many workers home around midnight due to the lack of light and the fact that so many onlookers were driving around in their vehicles.

“That was a big issue; that was a problem,” he admits. “Luckily nobody got hurt.” Workers were back at it again that morning.

They traveled around clearing streets, using dump trucks and a woodchipper during the clean-up. Overall, there were over 20 massive piles of debris removed from the city.

As for the elementary gym, Superintendent Shaun Kruger explained: “The top membrane of the roof was peeled back by the wind, allowing rainwater to seep in through the roof and land on the gym floor, which created puddles.”

The West Liberty Community School District is working to fix the issue now, from drying the floor to replacing the roof.

As a result, the school district canceled school the following Wednesday, May 22, to allow workers to move in and out. They had to cancel classes for the entire district.

“We also canceled classes because there were several tree limbs down all-around town and various routes to school, so we didn’t feel it was safe for kids to be walking,” he said.

The good news is, despite canceling school for a day, the school district is still able to hold its last day of school on Thursday, May 30.

“We have built-in days, built-in hours, where we can afford to miss a few days,” explains Superintendent Kruger. “The state requires 1,080 hours per year and we’re well above that.”

That worked in the district’s favor when a second set of storms swept through West Liberty early Thursday morning and afternoon, causing the district to delay its start that day. 

However, though the Thursday storms also came with heavy wind and rain, even a bit of hail, no significant damage was done.

The only real annoyance was Thursday’s winds pushing tree limbs that hadn’t been picked up yet from Tuesday’s storm back out into the street.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), “Numerous severe thunderstorms moved through the area on Tuesday, May 21.

Around Iowa

The bulk of the severe weather occurred during the late afternoon and evening time frame, with several Severe Thunderstorm Warnings issued over eastern Iowa into northwestern Illinois.”

It stated, “Straight-line winds were the main hazard with the storms and impressive wind gusts were observed.”

The strongest gust reported was 100 mph, from a personal weather station located just southeast of Atkins, Iowa. Several other locations reported wind gusts in excess of 70 mph, with damage consistent with that.

However, the real damage occurred in Greenfield, Iowa, a city of 2,000, on Tuesday, when a deadly tornado, one officials upgraded to EF-4, decimated the community.

The tornado reached wind speeds up to 185 mph. Officials say the tornado was a half-mile wide at its largest and was on the ground for 44 miles.

In addition to extensive property damage, the Iowa Department of Public Safety stated that five residents died in the tornado, while an additional 35 were injured.

In response, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has requested an expedited Presidential Disaster Declaration for Iowa counties where significant damage was sustained from severe storms and widespread flooding that occurred on May 21, 2024.

The letter requests activation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Individual Assistance Program and U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans for the following four counties: Adair, Polk, Story, and Montgomery.

In addition, the letter requests the activation of FEMA’s Public Assistance Program for Adair County. Additional counties may be added once the request is approved.

Funding under the FEMA Individual Assistance Program provides disaster-affected homeowners, renters, and businesses access to programs and services to maximize recovery, including assistance with housing, personal property replacement, medical expenses, and legal services.

The FEMA Public Assistance program provides funds that can be used to rebuild damaged infrastructure, including roads, bridges, culverts, and other public facilities, or to cover costs of emergency work during and debris removal after severe weather.

In addition, the governor requested funding to conduct hazard mitigation activities for the entire state.

Several Iowa state parks were impacted by recent heavy rains and storms, causing closures in some areas.

Visitors are urged to plan in advance heading into the holiday weekend in case a park activity or location is affected.

Impacted parks include: Backbone State Park (Delaware County), Big Creek State Park (Polk County), Dolliver Memorial State Park (Webster County), George Wyth State Park (Black Hawk County), Ledges State Park (Boone County), Rock Creek State Park (Jasper County), Walnut Woods State Park (Polk County), and Wapsipinicon State Park (Jones County). Additionally, several trails are closed to equestrian and bike use at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area, Elk Rock State Park, Stephens State Forest, and Volga River State Recreation Area due to wet conditions.