Iowa seems like an environmentally peaceful place. Most of the time it is. Volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires and hurricanes occur in far away places. Iowans experience them from a safe distance through Internet, television, radio and newspapers. But throughout history, Iowa has suffered its share of land—and life—changing events.
November 11, 1940 dawned with blue skies. Temperatures were in the 40s and 50s. The day was so nice that duck hunters put on short-sleeved shirts and rushed to their hunting areas early that morning.
During the late morning and early afternoon, a strong cold front blew through the region. Behind the cold front the temperature plunged. The weather became blustery. Rain moved in. First it turned to sleet, soon it turned to snow. Winds blowing 50 to 80 miles per hour (mph) whipped the snow into a blinding blizzard. All movement in Iowa came to a stop.
Up to 17 inches of snow fell in Iowa. Drifts were 20 feet deep in some places. The blizzard claimed a total of 154 lives, most of them hunters. It killed thousands of cattle in Iowa.
This storm, followed by a blizzard across northern Minnesota the next March, caused the U.S. Weather Bureau to change how it issued forecasts. Instead of the Chicago office producing forecasts for the entire region, regional centers provided predictions. The regional centers were able to make more accurate forecasts.
From the dawn of time, Iowa has found itself underwater. Fossils and sediments found in rock outcrops and river bluffs tell the story of much of ancient Iowa’s underwater past. Pioneer diaries often tell about the dangers of crossing swollen rivers. Levees, locks and dams along and across major rivers point to recent floods.
The Mississippi River drains water from 41 percent of the continental United States down to the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy rains throughout the Mississippi River basin in the fall of 1926 and spring of 1927 caused one of the worst floods on record.
In the spring of 1927, the Mississippi River from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico spilled out of its banks. The flood waters covered 27,000 square miles for over two months. Nearly 250 people died in the flood. More than 700,000 people had to leave their homes and work.
After this huge flood the federal government decided to do something to help reduce the damage done by floods along the Mississippi River. The government built floodwalls and levees and made other changes to keep the waters from overflowing.
These changes have helped to control the floodwaters during most storms. But the storms of 1993 dumped more than double the normal amount of rainfall in the Upper Midwest. Nothing could hold back the waters. For the first time on record, both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flooded at the same time. Over 16,000 square miles in nine states were covered with water. Many river front towns were underwater.
Des Moines was the largest city in the Upper Midwest to lose its municipal water supply. The city water plant was engulfed in floodwaters on July 11, 1993 leaving 350,000 people without water. The water works was nonfunctioning for 19 days. Bottling companies bottled water for drinking (unusual for that time) and water was brought in by the Iowa National Guard. Shower centers were set up in neighborhoods.
Forty-seven people died. About 74,000 people had to leave their homes. Despite these hardships there was no panic or major incidents.
Sometimes there’s too much water. Then there’s not enough! Iowa has a bad drought about every ten years. But there’s never been anything like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Bare ground farming was one reason for the Dust Bowl. Extremely dry weather added to the problem. High winds made it even worse. It was a spectacular disaster! Dust clouds were so thick that people and animals choked. Houses, fences and cars were blanketed in dust.
When the clouds of fertile topsoil reached the nation’s capital, lawmakers decided that something had to be done. In 1933 the Soil Conservation Service, now called the National Resources Conservation Service, was created. This federal agency helps landowners learn how to conserve their soil.
Tornadoes and snowstorms are the most common natural disasters in Iowa. Tornadoes can have wind speeds up to 300 mph. Tornadoes are considered the most violent storms on earth. They can travel more than 100 miles. They don’t last long, but they can cause a lot of damage.
In the 1930s and 1940s there were no Doppler radar devices, so people couldn’t hear about advancing storms. Radar equipment and warning systems cannot stop damage to power lines and buildings. But advance warnings of tornadoes and blizzards can save lives. And the weather equipment helps make snow days possible!
What’s in the Future?
Scientists keep close tabs on our world. Geologists monitor even slight movements in the earth’s crust. Astronomers chart the paths of asteroids, comets and meteors. Climatologists gather weather data to learn trends and patterns. These studies may provide us with advance warnings of natural disasters. But they will never be able to prevent catastrophes from occurring.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Cindy Blobaum.