Swirling into a New Stormy Season
By Bryon Houlgrave
Springtime in the Midwest rarely presents a dull sky.
As temperatures rise and humidity climbs, conflicting masses of hot and cold air collide somewhere over an Iowa cornfield, and a once billowy white cloud begins to build into a supercell. When the climatic conditions are showing signs of possible danger, teams of trained weather spotters and storm chasers head out into the elements to monitor the skies.
For weather enthusiast Todd Rector, April is his favorite time of the year. Rector, a storm chaser from Altoona, has been chasing after storms for several years. His admiration for weather began when he was a young child.
“I love the physics involved,” Rector said. “The excitement of seeing a huge supercell out on the Plains, spinning like a top … the power involved is beautiful to me.”
For many Midwesterners, the appeal of chasing after dangerous weather is limited to their front porches. We’ve all seen the videos of the husband (usually the husband) defying his wife’s pleas to get inside as a tornado churns in the background, swirling up field dirt. But for the teams of trained weather spotters, the adrenaline rush is also one of service. They report field data to media agencies who relay minute-by-minute information to the public to keep Iowans safe.
After many years of driving after tornadoes and other dangerous storms, Rector said that storms still scare him.
“I have a healthy respect for [storms]. It’s inherently dangerous to storm chase. But I try to keep a safe distance.”
He added that he tries to never take the weather for granted or become complacent.
“There’s going to be that one storm that’s going to not do what you think it’s going to do, and I try to stay away from that storm.”
For Iowa school districts, the safety of the students during inclement weather is paramount. At the Lake Mills Community School District, there is a dedicated tornado safe room at the school.
“We are fortunate to have a storm shelter on our campus that can safely hold our staff and students as well as others in the community, when needed,” said Chris Rogne, superintendent at the Lake Mills school district.
According to Rogne, Lake Mills was one of the first schools in the state to apply for and receive FEMA grant money to install the safe room, which is painted in big yellow and purple letters (the school’s colors), plenty visible for the community to see in case they need to use it.
“I am not sure how many districts have dedicated tornado shelters, but I am glad we have the facility here in the event it is needed,” Rogne said.
Keeping the kids calm during severe weather is something school staff are prepared for.
“They know the specific needs and demeanors of our students,” Rogne said. “In any time of crisis those relationships help provide the most calm and caring environment possible, at that time.”
It seems like common sense, but it bears reminding that tornadoes move quickly, and Rector advises the best thing to do during a tornado warning is to seek shelter right away, preferably in a basement or an interior bathroom.
“Try to put as many walls between yourself and the tornado .... Basements really are something that will save your life if it really comes down to it.”
He added that people shouldn’t wait to rely on sirens.
“Make sure you’re weather-aware,” Rector said. “Always have multiple sources of information, whether it be a news outlet, a phone app, or a weather radio.”
Looking for more on Iowa's storms? Check out Iowa's Wild Weather: Storms (premiering online starting April 19).