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MENACING STORM: Bow-shaped shelf clouds seen here during the August 2020 derecho

MADDIE MURPHY/NWS

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS3.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 7 T

EKS: 6.3A, 7.8A, 8.10B, 8.10C, ESS.14C

Surviving the Storm

One of the most severe windstorms ever recorded hit the Midwest last summer. Two young survivors share their story.

DANIEL ACKER/GETTY IMAGES

CRUSHING LOSS: Extreme winds from the derecho destroyed these grain silos in Luther, Iowa.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT what you should do if you’re caught in a severe windstorm.

It was the morning of August 10, 2020, and 12-year-old Addie Winter was helping to pack her grandparents’ van. She’d spent the weekend with her family at a lake cabin and was preparing for the drive back home to Gilbert, a small city in central Iowa. Addie, her 15-year-old brother Carter, three cousins, and grandparents had planned to spend their last day of vacation tubing on the lake. But at around 10 a.m., the anticipation of a fun day in the sun suddenly vanished. Menacing, low-lying clouds appeared in the western sky. Addie’s grandma Carol said, “There’s a storm coming, and we’ve got to beat it.”

It was the morning of August 10, 2020. Twelve-year-old Addie Winter was helping to pack her grandparents’ van. She’d spent the weekend with her family at a lake cabin. Addie, her 15-year-old brother Carter, three cousins, and grandparents were preparing to drive back home to Gilbert, a small city in central Iowa. They had planned to spend their last day of vacation tubing on the lake. But at around 10 a.m., they suddenly knew they wouldn’t have a fun day in the sun. Dark, low-lying clouds appeared in the western sky. Addie’s grandma Carol said, “There’s a storm coming, and we’ve got to beat it.”

COURTESY OF FAMILY (WINTER); COURTESY OF FAMILY (JONES)

Addie Winter (left) and Wyatt Jones (right)

Addie’s grandma had spotted shelf clouds, a telltale sign of an approaching severe storm. Addie didn’t know it at the time, but the weather system bearing down on them was actually a derecho (deh-REH-cho)—an intense, widespread, and fast-moving windstorm (see How a Derecho Forms). 

Addie and her family quickly loaded the van and hit the road. At around 11 a.m., they pulled into Addie’s driveway—and that’s when the storm hit, hard and fast. The temperature outside plummeted, and the sky grew dark. Winds howled around the vehicle, rocking it back and forth. Rain was blowing sideways. Addie heard branches snapping off trees. Everyone in the van thought about running for the house, but flying debris made it too dangerous. They were trapped.

Addie’s grandma had spotted shelf clouds. They’re a sign that a severe storm is coming. Addie didn’t know it then, but the approaching weather system was actually a derecho (deh-REH-cho). That’s a strong, widespread, and fast-moving windstorm (see How a Derecho Forms).

Addie and her family quickly loaded the van and left. At around 11 a.m., they pulled into Addie’s driveway. That’s when the storm hit, hard and fast. The temperature outside dropped, and the sky grew dark. Winds howled around the van, rocking it back and forth. Rain blew sideways. Branches snapped off trees. Everyone in the van thought about running for the house. But flying objects made it too dangerous. They were trapped.

Addie, who’d always been afraid of big storms because of the threat of tornadoes in the region, was terrified. Her brother Carter kept telling her that they would be fine. But this was unlike any storm she’d ever experienced. Addie and her brother used a cell phone to call their parents inside the house. As they were speaking, Addie heard a loud crack. “Mom, a tree fell on the house!” Carter yelled. Then suddenly, they saw the family’s shed fall over and the power go out.

Addie had always been afraid of big storms, because tornadoes were a danger in the area. Now she was terrified. Her brother Carter kept saying that they would be fine. But this wasn’t like any storm she’d ever seen. Addie and her brother used a cell phone to call their parents inside the house. As they spoke, Addie heard a loud crack. “Mom, a tree fell on the house!” Carter yelled. Then suddenly, the family’s shed fell over and the power went out.

THE AFTERMATH

After about 40 minutes, the rain and wind calmed. Addie and the others got out of the van and headed for the house. As soon as she got inside, Addie ran to hug her parents. Thankfully, the tree her brother thought had fallen on the house turned out to be a large branch that caused only minor damage.

Other people weren’t as lucky. A nearby cornfield, where stalks had once stood 4 meters (12 feet) tall, was completely leveled. “It was a flattened carpet of green and brown,” says Addie.

About 40 minutes later, the rain and wind calmed. Addie and the others left the van and went to the house. When she got inside, Addie ran to hug her parents. Her brother thought a tree had fallen on the house. Thankfully, it was really a large branch that caused only minor damage.

Other people weren’t as lucky. Cornstalks had stood 4 meters (12 feet) tall in a nearby field. But now the cornfield was completely leveled. “It was a flattened carpet of green and brown,” says Addie.

COURTESY OF WINTER FAMILY

TREE DAMAGE: Strong winds caused a large branch to snap and fall on Addie Winter’s house.

And the destruction went well beyond Addie’s neighborhood. The monster storm had traveled 1,239 kilometers (770 miles) through eight Midwestern states. Its winds reached 225 km (140 mi) per hour—similar to those of a Category 4 hurricane—making it the strongest recorded derecho in history (see Tracking a Storm).

The storm killed four people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Farmers were hit particularly hard. An estimated 10 million acres— nearly half of Iowa’s $10 billion corn and soybean crop—were destroyed. The storm’s timing could hardly have been worse for farmers, says Bill Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University. Not only did they lose crops, they also lost expensive infrastructure. During this time of year, huge grain silos stand empty because corn hasn’t been harvested yet. “When they’re filled with grain, the bins are nearly indestructible,” says Gallus. “But because so many were empty, the wind crushed them like empty soda pop cans.”

And the damage went well beyond Addie’s neighborhood. The monster storm had traveled 1,239 kilometers (770 miles) through eight Midwestern states. Its winds reached 225 km (140 mi) per hour. That’s like a Category 4 hurricane. It was the strongest recorded derecho in history (see Tracking a Storm).

The storm killed four people and caused billions of dollars in damage. Farmers were really hit hard. Around 10 million acres were destroyed. That’s nearly half of Iowa’s $10 billion corn and soybean crop. The storm’s timing couldn’t have been worse for farmers, says Bill Gallus. He’s a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University. Farmers didn’t only lose crops, but also expensive equipment. During this time of year, corn hasn’t been harvested yet. So huge grain silos stand empty. “When they’re filled with grain, the bins are nearly indestructible,” says Gallus. “But because so many were empty, the wind crushed them like empty soda pop cans.”

SAFE SHELTER

Wyatt Jones, an 11-year-old also from Gilbert, weathered the derecho too. His dad, William, was outside when he suddenly heard the sound of the city’s tornado sirens. He ran inside to find Wyatt, his brothers Ryker and Brock, and sister Zoey playing video games in the living room. He told the kids to take their dog Bella and seek shelter in the basement—the safest place during a windstorm.

Then Wyatt’s dad ran outside to find their other two dogs, Ellie and Tucker. “I got really worried when my dad went back outside,” Wyatt says. “The trees and branches were blowing really hard. I could see the rain coming down sideways. And then I got worried for all of our animals,” he says. Wyatt’s family owns chickens, goats, and rabbits.

Eleven-year-old Wyatt Jones is also from Gilbert. He weathered the derecho too. His dad, William, was outside. Suddenly, he heard the city’s tornado sirens. He ran inside to find Wyatt, his brothers Ryker and Brock, and sister Zoey. They were playing video games in the living room. He told the kids to take their dog Bella and head to the basement. That’s the safest place during a windstorm.

Then Wyatt’s dad ran outside. He looked for their other two dogs, Ellie and Tucker. “I got really worried when my dad went back outside,” Wyatt says. “The trees and branches were blowing really hard. I could see the rain coming down sideways. And then I got worried for all of our animals,” he says. Wyatt’s family owns chickens, goats, and rabbits.

CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP IMAGES

LOST HARVEST: A farmer in Woodward, Iowa, walks through his flattened cornfield.

Wyatt’s dad soon returned with the dogs and met the rest of the family inside a big storage closet under the basement stairs. The power went out, so they turned on battery-powered lanterns and listened to the raging wind. About a half hour later, the wind died down and everyone went outside. Tree branches were scattered all over. But Wyatt was relieved to find that none of their animals were hurt. “There had been nothing like this storm before,” he says.

Wyatt’s dad returned soon with the dogs. He met the rest of the family inside a big storage closet under the basement stairs. The power went out, so they turned on battery-powered lanterns. For about half an hour, they listened to the howling wind. Then the wind died down, and everyone went outside. Tree branches were lying all over. But Wyatt found that none of their animals were hurt. He was relieved. “There had been nothing like this storm before,” he says.

OUT OF NOWHERE

Derechos are most common in North America but can occur around the world. They hit the U.S. several times a year, most frequently in the Midwest. The problem is that they’re extremely difficult to predict, says Gallus. Unlike a hurricane, which can be tracked for days in advance, derechos take people by surprise— even experts like Gallus.

Derechos are most common in North America. But they can happen around the world. They hit the U.S. several times a year, mostly in the Midwest. The problem is that they’re extremely hard to predict, says Gallus. A hurricane can be tracked for days in advance. But derechos take people by surprise, even experts like Gallus.

ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES/THE REGISTER VIA IMAGN CONTENT SERVICES, LLC

MASS DESTRUCTION: A car is covered in bricks and other debris tossed by strong winds, in Marshalltown, Iowa.

During the early morning hours of August 10, the National Weather Service predicted only a “marginal risk” for storms in the region where Gallus lives. “When I woke up that Monday, I was surprised to see thunderstorms headed in our direction,” he says. It wasn’t until 30 minutes before the storm hit that the weather service issued “severe thunderstorm warnings.” To stay safe, Gallus says, people should heed public warning systems. Many people, he says, don’t take alerts seriously. Gallus believes the government should create additional warnings, similar to those for tornadoes, for windstorms like derechos.

For Addie, experiencing the derecho changed her outlook on severe storms: “When the storm was over, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Since I went through that, I’m not as terrified of storms now—I don’t think a storm could ever be that bad again.”

During the early morning of August 10, things seemed fine in the area where Gallus lives. The National Weather Service predicted only a “marginal risk” for storms. “When I woke up that Monday, I was surprised to see thunderstorms headed in our direction,” he says. Only 30 minutes before the storm hit, the weather service issued “severe thunderstorm warnings.” Gallus says that people should heed public warning systems to stay safe. Many people don’t take alerts seriously, he says. Gallus believes the government should create additional warnings for windstorms like derechos. They would be similar to tornado warnings.

Addie’s experience with the derecho changed her outlook on severe storms. “When the storm was over, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Since I went through that, I’m not as terrified of storms now—I don’t think a storm could ever be that bad again.”

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