July 19th, 2018
Initial Target: Central Iowa
Features: Multiple funnels, multiple tornadoes
Summary: Tornado Outbreak
Conditions were ripe for funnels and tornadoes in Central/Eastern Iowa beginning fairly early in the afternoon. There was an insane amount of low-level shear that would cause anything to spin, even though the storms were forecast to be low-topped and non supercellular. Zach had to do a talk (about severe weather preparedness, of all things) in Ames and wouldn’t be finished until around 2:30 – terrible timing since storms were looking to initiate before that. I met Zach in Ames and no sooner was he in the car than we heard reports of a tornado in Bondurant, Iowa, only 5 miles from my house(!). We were positioned on hwy 30 just outside of Nevada, and could see the Bondurant tornado on the horizon. We stopped to shoot video but it was WAAAY off in the distance. We chose to head more or less in a SE direction, which would let us intercept an interesting cell. Traffic on the scanner indicated there were no injuries and only light damage in Bondurant, and a friend who lives up the road from me called to tell me everything was okay in our neighborhood.
We pursued a set of cells which were dropping funnels left and right. It was eery how much spin there was in the atmosphere; there were several times we could see multiple funnels at the same time but they were somewhat weak and we couldn’t confirm ground interaction. Zach was on the phone with the NWS and KCCI reporting what we were seeing. We followed a particularly strong for awhile and came about as close to having a tornado as we possibly could, but we can’t call it a tornado unless we see ground interaction, which we just couldn’t quite see thanks to the tall corn blocking our view of the horizon.
We were a few miles outside of Marshalltown, IA on a cell which was quickly gaining strength. Soon it turned into an absolute monster of a tornado, and it was heading straight toward Marshalltown! Zach was on the phone with the NWS as we started to enter the city limits, flanking the tornado. This was a beast of a storm and we could see debris and trees in the air. For us, it was an extremely dangerous position to be in – following an active tornado into a city is total chaos. Power goes out, people are panicking and running red lights, speed limits are 35 an visibility to the horizon isn’t possible. Bad situation, but we pressed onward. We could see the collar of the tornado – it was huge – but we couldn’t see where it was on the ground, despite our only being a half mile from it. We knew it was powerful due to the volume and type of debris it was lofting. We were in the outer circulation for about 30 seconds and large tree branches were flying sideways across the road in front of us. Yay. Powerlines were starting to fall across the road in front of us, and since we had a good visual on the tornado and it was moving in a predictable direction, our primary threat was debris and powerlines. We had been livestreaming to KCCI but right now we were more concerned with safety than with getting footage. To those people whose front yards we drove through in order to avoid obstacles, I apologize. We managed to get a little farther south and could see an increase in airborne debris as the tornado hit the downtown area. Road hazards were causing us to fall behind the tornado and soon we were unable to continue at all due to fallen trees and powerlines as the tornado moved outside the city limits, where it dissipated.
People were starting to come out of their houses and survey damage. We had found ourselves near the 100,000 square foot Lennox furnace plant, which had major damage. Power was out everywhere and cell phone towers were either damaged or overwhelmed, leaving cell service spotty at best. Zach and I assisted as best we could, but we were in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and nobody spoke English. We ended up shooting some B-roll damage video and did an interview with a local man before leaving once roads were open so we could make room for power crews.