Severe Weather Awareness Week starts Monday
Severe weather isn’t always predictable — everything can change in an instant.
That’s why it’s important to understand what severe weather is and how to prepare, said Webster County Emergency Management Coordinator Dylan Hagen.
Severe Weather Awareness Week begins Monday and continues through Friday. Iowa is no stranger to severe weather — from severe thunderstorms and hail, to tornados and derechos. In April 2022, two EF-2 and one EF-1 tornado touched down in Pocahontas and Humboldt counties. In December 2021, 61 tornados — including eight that touched down in Webster County — were spawned from a massive windstorm that caused widespread damage across the Midwest.
These kinds of storms can be deadly as well as damaging, and the best way to prevent fatalities and injuries is to be aware and prepare for severe weather, Hagen said. That’s the mission of Severe Weather Awareness Week.
Each day of the week focuses on a different topic.
Monday focuses on severe thunderstorms, which are defined as storms capable of producing hail one inch or larger, or wind gusts over 58 mph. These storms can cause damage to roofs, vehicles and break large tree branches, causing structural damage. Severe thunderstorms can also produce hail larger than softballs and winds over 100 mph, or even a tornado.
Tuesday’s focus is on weather warnings and alerts, like the difference between a “watch” and a “warning.”
A tornado watch means that a tornado is possible and residents should be prepared, review their emergency plan and know where to shelter in case it escalates to a tornado warning. A tornado warning means a tornado has been observed by spotters or is radar-indicated and residents should take shelter immediately and monitor the weather using a weather radio, TV, local radio or smartphone app.
For thunderstorms, a watch means weather conditions are favorable for severe storms, and a warning means a severe storm is occurring and residents should be inside a sturdy building.
Having multiple ways to receive these notifications is important, Hagen said. National Weather Service alerts are broadcast on AM/FM radio, weather radio and TV. Another way to receive customized notifications is Alert Iowa, a free emergency alert service for all Iowans.
Residents can sign up for notifications from Alert Iowa by downloading the Smart911 app, or by creating an account on the Webster County Smart 911 web portal at https://bit.ly/3hiLrXG. Once an account is created, residents can customize what types of notifications they want to receive, including storm, tornado and flood watch and warnings; law enforcement warnings; hazardous materials warnings; and non-weather related alerts for any of the towns in Webster County.
Typically, when a town is placed under a water boil advisory, Hagen will push out a notification through Alert Iowa for those residents subscribed to alerts for that town.
“Anything that affects the community as far as public safety, we can send out those messages if people are signed up for them,” Hagen said. “We’ve put the tow ban out on it, boil advisory, shelter in place. We can do evacuations. It’s really endless of what we can use that for and the more people we have on that, the better.”
During severe winter weather, he’s also pushed out notifications on tow bans in the county, as well as warming and emergency shelters during mass power outages. Users can also customize whether they want to receive these alerts via text message, email or voice through an automated phone call. Hagen has also used the system to set up public safety notifications specific to community events like the Webster County Fair, Downtown Country Jam, Shellabration and Frontier Days.
To learn more about Alert Iowa in Webster County, visit webstercountyia.gov. Additional information on the system is available at www.homelandsecurity.iowa.gov.
Wednesday will focus on tornados and there will be a statewide tornado drill at 10 a.m. Sirens will activate for approximately three minutes.
“We will set the sirens off county-wide and we encourage participation from residents, businesses, care facilities, etc., during that time to think about what you would do in the event of a tornado, whether you’re at home, at work, out to eat at lunch and so on,” Hagen said.
Thursday’s focus is on preparedness — make a plan, build an emergency kit and be aware of the weather.
“Severe weather can happen at any time, as we’ve seen in previous years,” Hagen said. “It’s not just springtime for tornadoes — In December 2021 we had a tornado.”
Ready.Iowa.Gov has resources to help families create these preparedness plans.
To round out the week, Friday will focus on the dangers of flash floods. Most people have heard the “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” slogan, but it’s more than just a clever couplet.
Hagen warns drivers against driving through flooded streets, even if the water looks shallow, because it’s impossible to know if the roadway underneath has been washed away, or if there are other hazards hiding under the floodwaters. He also noted that a foot of fast-moving water can move a small car, and two feet of water can sweep larger cars, trucks and SUVs down the current.
Hagen will be posting information on severe weather all week on the Webster County Iowa Emergency Management Facebook page.
Hagen also noted that when a storm does hit the area, it’s important that any storm damage be reported to Emergency Management or law enforcement.
“Damage assessments are a big thing after a big storm for us, just to see how big and impactful the storm has been to our community, because that’s how we can get funding from the state and federal level,” Hagen said.
Damage surveys also help the National Weather Service with things like gathering data to reconstruct a tornado’s path and severity.