A swarm of stunning tornadoes swept through Kansas and Nebraska on Tuesday, but it was only when they reached western Iowa — after midnight and no longer visible — that they turned deadly.
Near Adair, Iowa, a woman died and her husband was injured when an EF-2 tornado demolished their farmstead about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. Such nighttime tornadoes are rare — since 1980, less than 5% of tornadoes that have struck Iowa have occurred between midnight and 6 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.
The weather service received 27 tornado reports in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa on Tuesday — one of two swarms that day. The other raked across central and eastern Missouri, with at least one striking in the St. Louis area. All told, the weather service received at least 45 reports of tornadoes Tuesday. Many remain unconfirmed.
Jake Sojda, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald’s private weather consultant, said the risk of tornadic weather in the central U.S. will continue into next week.
“This has been going on for about a week and will continue,” he said. The problem, he said, is the convergence of cold air sweeping down from the northwest with a hot bubble of air sitting over the southeast U.S.
“The Plains are sandwiched right in the sweet spot,” he said. “That’s why pretty much every day we’re seeing severe weather.”
The Iowa tornado that killed Linda Brownlee, 74, and injured her husband, Harold Brownlee, 78, was rated an EF-2. Wind speeds peaked between 120 and 130 mph during the tornado’s 4.8-mile path. At its widest, it spanned about 150 yards, according to the weather service. The tornado was on the ground for eight minutes, touching down at 1:29 a.m. and lifting at 1:37 a.m. Three buildings were destroyed at the farm and two nearby houses were damaged, said Robert Kempf, emergency management coordinator for Adair and Guthrie Counties.
Adair is 80 miles east of Omaha. The weather service said debris from the farmstead landed on nearby Interstate 80, according to the Associated Press.
The Adair tornado was the second of two in Iowa. About 25 minutes earlier, an EF-1 tornado with peak winds of 90 to 100 mph touched down near Anita. It was on the ground for about two minutes, traveled 1.1 miles and had a maximum width of about 50 yards. No one was hurt, but an old barn was demolished.
In Nebraska, two brief, weak tornadoes touched down just before nightfall and caused minor tree damage along the Nemaha-Richardson County line. Rated as EF-0, their wind speeds didn’t exceed 65 mph, according to the weather service.
Nighttime tornadoes such as the ones that struck Iowa have the potential to be among the deadliest for a couple of reasons. They’re rare, so people aren’t expecting them. Usually, people already are sleeping, so even if warnings are issued, people may not hear them.
Additionally, nighttime tornadoes are simply hard to see.
Meteorologists rely on radar and storm spotters to alert the public to tornadoes. Radar is helpful, but not as useful as having a person confirm a tornado on the ground. But once darkness falls, it’s no longer safe to deploy storm spotters, and that was the case Tuesday night.
“At night, it’s really difficult to get eyes on it,” said Chad Hahn of the Des Moines area office of the National Weather Service. “You can’t see the clues of what the clouds are telling you.”
There were no tornado watches or warnings in effect when the Adair farmstead was struck, Hahn said. There was, however, a severe thunderstorm warning in effect, he said.
Cathy Zapotocny, a meteorologist with the weather service in Valley, said conditions Tuesday night produced mini-supercells, a type of fast-moving storm system that produces short-lived tornadoes.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
“These were unique. They weren’t really the classic kind of storms,” Zapotocny said. “They have a different look to them and tend to be brief.”
Looking ahead, Zapotocny said people should be aware of changing weather conditions. There is another risk of severe storms on Thursday night and again Saturday and Sunday. Forecasters can’t pinpoint, yet, just where storms will break out.
“People will just have to pay attention,” she said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.