These Natural Disasters Can Occur in Iowa! Are You Prepared?

Natural disasters in Iowa

Iowa is well-known for being a farming state where 92% of its land is covered by plains and cornfields. Iowans keep things fun and interesting with their many roadside attractions, sculptures, and oddities. If you’re traveling through the state, you’ll definitely want to check some of them out!

Apart from their art collections, the Hawkeye State has the highest literacy rate in the nation (at 99%) and is considered one of the safest places to live in.

The hog to person ratio may, or may not, have something to do with this - the hog population in Iowa is 4 times larger than that of humans. As far as we know, the hogs are friendly neighbors!

Iowans enjoy jazz, ice fishing, craft breweries, wine made with rhubarb, tailgating on Saturdays during football season, and eating Maid-Rite sandwiches (without ketchup!)

Severe weather in Iowa, as you will learn in this article, is not out of the ordinary.

What natural disasters does Iowa have?

Iowa’s most common natural disasters include floods, severe storms, tornadoes, winter storms, landslides, and power outages. Less threatening hazards are heat waves and droughts.

Between 1953 and 2019, Iowa declared 67 major disasters, of which floods and severe storms happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

1. Floods

Iowa is prone to major floods. The combination of extreme weather events like heavy rainfall, rapidly melting snow, ice jams, overflowing rivers, saturated soils, and levee or dam failure only heighten the risk.

An estimated 150,000 Iowans live in flood-prone areas. Over time, this number may increase as erosion and natural disasters change the topography of a region.

One of the worst (and longest) floods in the state’s recent history began on March 11, 2019, and lasted up until December 2019. At the beginning of the flood season, a disaster proclamation was made to 81 of Iowa’s 99 counties in which they were given an indefinite flood warning or advisory.

March storms brought in significant flooding, and just as the floodwaters were receding, more storms followed.

Some areas remained flooded for approximately 200 days! The flood damage assessment showed that the cost of property damage in Iowa alone exceeded $1.6 billion (2019 USD).

Floods can cause extensive damage— not just to personal property and infrastructure, but also to an entire city’s economy.

Those who live in moderate to high-risk areas should rehearse an evacuation plan that can be successfully executed in ten minutes or less.

Know which items you need to take with you during an evacuation and where you will go until the threat passes.

Everyone, including those who live in low-risk areas, should stay updated with the weather report and local news. 

Practice safety during floods. Do not go near flood waters, since they can easily sweep you away and they contain contaminants and hazardous materials like petroleum and sewage water.

Learn flood safety and mitigation tips here.

2. Severe Storms

Severe storms, in the form of derechos, thunderstorms, torrential rains, strong winds with even stronger wind gusts, and hail, are almost synonymous with Iowa.

Iowa ranks 24th among the US states when it comes to total lightning-related deaths. Between 1959 and 2016, lightning strikes caused 74 fatalities in the Hawkeye State.

In August 2020, a derecho ripped through the state. The 100 mph storm system caused extensive wind damage to infrastructure and a number of homes, flattened millions of acres of farmland, uprooted trees, scattered debris, and left 3 people dead.

The estimated losses were in the billions. No one expected the derecho to be as severe as it was, but government officials are now working on a wireless emergency alert system that will allow them to reach the community via mobile phones prior to another event like this.

Hail storms are also common throughout the spring, summer, and fall months. One of the largest hailstones ever recorded in the state measured 7 inches!

The hailstone was discovered in Scott County on September 27, 1959. It caused extensive damage to infrastructure and personal property, including thousands of broken windows.

Storms are fascinating to watch yet can be surprisingly dangerous. They occur primarily during the warm months, which of course coincides with a greater number of people being outdoors.

Even though many of these storms come and go within thirty minutes, they can be destructive.

Do not underestimate the power of a storm. If there is one headed your way, be sure to take cover indoors until you don’t see lightning or hear thunder for thirty minutes or more.

Anticipate the possibility of other disasters as a residual effect of a severe storm, for example, general flooding or flash floods, landslides, and power outages. Learn how to be prepared for lightning, thunder, and other severe storms here. 

3. Tornadoes

Although the boundaries of the “Tornado Alley” are not officially defined, Iowa is included within the alley. The Hawkeye State experiences an average of 48 tornadoes annually, and an occasional tornado outbreak.

While they can happen during any time of year and at any time of day, they generally occur between March and September, with May and June being the peak months, and between the hours of 1 and 8 pm.

In the state’s recorded history, there have been six EF5 tornados with wind speeds exceeding 260mph. Sadly, these provide us with plenty of examples of deadly storms.

One of these EF5 tornadoes occurred on May 25, 2008. The funnel cloud measured approximately 1,235 yards wide and it traveled almost 17 miles. It caused 50 injuries, 9 fatalities, and $75 million (2008 USD) in damages.

Tornadoes don’t provide us with much warning, so being ready to take cover at a moment’s notice could save your life.

Some cities throughout Iowa have tornado sirens to warn the public of severe weather and the possibility of a tornado developing. When you hear it, get to a safe place immediately.

In any case, don't just rely on the expectation that tornado warnings will be sent to you. If you suspect one may occur, get to a safe place and wait until the threat passes.

Designate an interior room of your home (with no exterior doors or windows) to be your “safe room”. In that room, you should store at least the basic provisions, such as long-lasting snacks, a first aid kit, a family 72-hour kit, and other items of personal need.

This guide discusses tornado mitigation strategies and safety tips in greater detail— check it out and print the checklists for future reference. 

4. Winter Storms

Iowa has cold winters generally averaging 14°F in the northwest and low 20s°F in the southeast.

The average snowfall statewide ranges from 25 to 40 inches per season— January being the snowiest month. The snow doesn’t last long, however, occasional snowstorms and blizzards are known to occur.

The deadliest natural disaster in Iowa's history was the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. It killed 154 people.

Another one of the worst blizzards in the Hawkeye State was the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975. In a matter of four days, snow accumulations exceeded two feet. It resulted in extensive storm damage throughout the Midwest, including the death of more than 100,000 farm animals and 58 people. 

The most snow ever recorded in Iowa can be traced back to March 10, 1951, when a major storm dumped 27.2 inches of snow. The storm was relentless for 90 to 100 hours. It had sustained winds of 30 to 50 mph and peak winds of 70 to 90 mph.

If a blizzard is in the forecast, begin making preparations beforehand to stay home or shelter in place. Most winter storms are predicted at least a few days in advance, so you should get any supplies you need and have them handy.

In the event of sleet and freezing rain, it’s recommended to postpone travel until the roads are clear and safe.

Consider the likelihood of long-term power outages, blocked roads, and other disasters that may occur as a result of the storm. Try to postpone travel, and if you can’t, be sure to have a fully stocked winter car kit.

To learn how to be prepared for a blizzard and other winter storms, check out this complete guide. 

5. Landslides

Iowa has a moderate to low risk of landslides. The most vulnerable regions are western Iowa, central Iowa, and southern Iowa.

Heavy rains trigger landslides and mudslides in slopes when the top soil is weak, heavily saturated, or recovering from a recent burn. Oftentimes, they cause severe damage. 

In April 2007, entire roads were washed out across Iowa and a landslide buried a freeway under mud, broken tree branches, and debris.

The first step in becoming prepared for a landslide is knowing your risk. Those who have a moderate to high risk should consult a professional to help with mitigation efforts by reinforcing vulnerable areas around the property. 

You should also look into the risk level of the main roads of transportation in your neighborhood and city.

Even if your home is not located in a high-risk area, it’s still possible that one of the roads you drive on often may be affected.

If you’re unable to commute to work or leave the city, will you still have enough provisions at home to cover the needs your family members for at least two weeks?

To learn about landslide preparedness, check out this guide.

6. Power Outages

While a short power outage can become an inconvenience to most, a long-term power outage can become a nightmare for anyone.

One of the worst outages in Iowa’s recent history occurred in August 2020. A powerful wind storm left 250,000 people across the state without electricity— many were in the dark for over a week.

Keep in mind that our power lines and electrical systems are vulnerable to Mother Nature. Outages tend to occur as a result of other natural disasters, such as strong gusty winds (as was the case in August 2020), tornados, or winter storms.

On top of having to adjust to life without light, a working refrigerator, and wifi, you’re going to have to deal with having possibly no source of heat or the effects of the disaster that caused the outage to begin with. 

Preparing for a power outage is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family. Apart from the basic 72-hour kit, long-lasting food, water, and a way to cook your food, we recommend you have a “family blackout weekend”.

During that blackout weekend, you will turn off the main electrical switch at your house and you will be challenged to go for 48 hours (or less if that’s too long) without any source of power.

This is the time to test your preparedness gear, such as your emergency kit, generator, and alternative methods of cooking in order to determine which gaps need to be filled in your emergency plan.

I believe an activity like this is not only beneficial, but it can also be very enjoyable. Worst case scenario, if you need to turn the power back on at some point, just switch the breaker back on— but try not to!

In this guide, you can read all about power outage preparedness and download the safety list.

7. Extreme Heat and Droughts

The average summer temperatures in Iowa range from 78°F to 85°F plus high humidity. Several heat waves have been recorded throughout the state’s history.

As recent as July 2019, Iowa underwent an excessive heat warning marked by a prolonged period of daytime highs reaching near the 110s°F.

Iowa is also prone to drought conditions. At the time this article was written, about 15.2% of the state is in tier D1, meaning moderate drought where pond levels are decreasing, agriculture is struggling, the grass is turning brown, and burn bans are being issued.

About 26.1% of the state is under tier D0 (abnormally dry) which means that the soil is dry and the corn is showing signs of drought stress.

Our guide on extreme heat preparedness has many tips on how to stay cool during warmer temperatures while conserving water and electricity. 

Natural disaster resources for Iowa

If you’re a resident of Iowa, I encourage you to take advantage of the following resources to polish your emergency preparedness plan.

  • One of the best ways to stay up to date with developing storms, weather conditions, and environmental information is with the National Weather Service app.

    Download the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA Weather Radio app on your mobile device and enable the notifications. Be sure to keep your phone charged throughout the day to make sure your receive the updates in real-time.

  • All disasters vary in the ways that we should prepare for them. For this reason, you should check out our complete guides to each disaster type.

    You will find strategies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters, safety tips, disaster-specific preparedness gear suggestions, and checklists that you can print and keep for future reference. View all the main disasters and get prepared here! 
  • There's a hands-on side to preparedness too. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a federal government organization that trains community members on how to become resilient during and after disasters.

    You will not only learn a lot from the in-person training and simulations, but you will also meet like-minded individuals and emergency responders in your area. Find your local CERT here.

  • There's also a way to get involved in disaster relief operations. For those who have extra resources to donate or would like to get involved with volunteer organizations in recovery efforts, consider joining Iowa's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). VOAD teams up with local emergency management officials to provide aid to disaster survivors.

    Another organization that works in disaster response is the American Red Cross. They provide emergency shelter, food, and necessary supplies to evacuees. 

  • For additional information on state resources regarding emergency planning and disaster recovery within the state of Iowa, check out Iowa's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Iowa’s most common disasters.

We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plan according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!

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