Forecasters predicted that Monday would have severe weather, and they were right.
For most of the county, it was torrential rains that caused flooding concerns. But for residents of northeast Story County, it was more than just rain. It was severe winds, possibly even a small tornado, that hit hard in the early afternoon.
Mary O’Connor, the practitioner at Story Medical Clinic in Zearing, said the first indication to her and her staff that something was serious was when they heard the Zearing town sirens going off around 12:30 to 12:40 p.m. “We were all on our lunch break and didn’t have any patients (in the building),” O’Connor said. “Pretty soon a patient came in and said a storm was hitting Story City pretty badly and was expected to come our way.”
O’Connor said as the sky turned black, she and the others in the medical clinic at that time went into the X-ray room. “We could hear the hail through the lead-lined room. You could hear the wind and hail. It took about 20 minutes; we came out and the damage was immediately apparent to us, even on Main Street.”
Debris was scattered everywhere and an American flag had blown to the front of the clinic office from somewhere. It was soaked, so the clinic staff hung it up to dry. The staff also noticed an increase in traffic on Main Street. That was because a huge tree had fallen across Highway 65 and traffic had to be re-routed through Zearing.
Without power, the clinic staff saved their vaccines by loading them up to be taken to the hospital in Nevada. “I finally sent everyone home around 4, because we were still without power,” O’Connor said.
As she travelled the highway to her home in McCallsburg, O’Connor felt she was witnessing damage that may have been caused by a tornado zig zagging across Highway E18. “Some of the field damage was incredible. Corn was laying flat. There were downed power lines.” And then, as she came into McCallsburg, her hometown for about 17 years, which she affectionately refers to as “Burg,” O’Connor said there was water — lots of it.
At her own house, she had lost a lot of shingles off the roof and the big trampoline, that was staked down in three places, was now in her neighbor’s yard.
That neighbor, Harlan Borton, who has lived on the same property on the north side of McCallsburg since he was 5 years old, 61 years ago, said he was at home at the time the “unusual” storm hit. “We had very strong winds, I’d say 50-60 mph, and it blew the shingles off my garage,” Borton said. He also had branches laying all over his yard and the street in front of his house, he said, “looks like a river. The ground is so saturated that any rain we get is going to be a problem.”
After the initial storm had passed Borton did what most people do, he drove around town to see what had happened everywhere else. “I talked to a lot of people who were getting water in their basements,” said Borton, who said the electricity going out caused a lot of sump pumps to go off when they were needed most. “I know for people with water in their basements, it’s going to be a mess.”
And McCallsburg has dealt with heavy rains before; in fact, just last spring on Memorial Day weekend a huge storm caused major flooding in the McCallsburg/Zearing area. But this time, the winds added a new dimension to the problems. “(The wind) just whipped everything around here,” Borton said. “I’ve never had branches come down like this, and on the older trees that are strong.”
Borton said by Tuesday, he’d be out with his chainsaw to start cutting up the branches in his yard and then he’d go see if anybody else needed any help.
Story County Emergency Management deputy Melissa Spencer said Tuesday morning that while McCallsburg definitely got hit hard, especially with flooding, it was Zearing that was the most heavily impacted community in the county.
On Monday, Zearing, which reportedly had 3 1/2 inches of rain, was a mess after the storm passed. Limbs could be seen in nearly every yard in town with trees uprooted in some places.
Harold Heil, 86, saw limbs in his yard, but his biggest concern was the second floor of his home, where the strong winds caused the glass around his deck to be pulled out of its wooden frame in many places.
“It was like those pieces of glass were just sucked out.” said Heil. “I’ve lived here since 1978 and this has never happened before.”
Zearing City Clerk Shelly Soe was out immediately after the storm passed surveying the damage around town as well as to her own home. Along with several volunteers armed with chainsaws, she was doing what she could to keep as many streets as possible open. In some areas, it would take crews hours to remove entire trees that were blocking roadways.
“I have one tree service on the way from Story City and another from Eldora,” said Soe. “I’ve been the city clerk for almost 14 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen as far as tree damage. We have people with holes in their houses.” Some unfortunate homeowners will be cleaning up inside as well as outside.
A large ash tree fell on the roof of Dean Heldt’s residence. Heldt and his son Ryan were thankful that the tree didn’t pierce through the roof, but the Heldts will need to patch some holes. “I have three buckets full of water inside,” said Dean. “It could have been a lot worse, though.”
Soe said that in the southern and low-lying section of Zearing, this is the fourth time waters have risen high enough to flood houses within the last three weeks, as storms have been a common occurence in the past month.
“I can feel the winds change right on this street for some reason,” said Soe as she took in the damage from Pine Street. “We had a tornado go through the fields out here [north of Zearing] two weeks ago. People said it touched down by the lake. I think what’s going to happen now is that we’ll have to take down more trees than what were damaged,” she said. “These trees are now just being inundated with water.”
The worst damage near Zearing occurred north and east of town. Tammy Breer’s friends and family were already arriving Monday afternoon to help with clean-up and provide emotional support. At the property she rents along E-18, limbs were scattered throughout the yard. Her home and outbuildings also showed the wrath of the storm. Breer said couldn’t believe the pieces of limbs and trees driven into the ground from the storm throughout her yard. She was relieved to see that her dogs and her horse were not injured.
“I can’t afford insurance, so I’m not sure what I’ll do,” said Breer.
Further east, Dave Perry’s farm also became a hub of activity with friends and neighbors checking in on the family. There was no damage to their home, but the same could not be said for Perry’s mangled grain bins just across the driveway. Perry said this is the worst he’s experienced in 47 years on the same property.
“I’m not sure if it was a tornado or just winds, but this is the first time we’ve had to go to the basement in 47 years,” said Perry.
Spencer said that last year, Story County Emergency Management had a change in policy concerning the sounding of outdoor warning sirens, which Zearing area residents certainly heard Monday. The sirens are now activated not only for tornado warnings, but also for severe thunderstorm warnings where the wind could be in excess of 70 mph. “We implemented this (policy change), and whenever you hear sirens sound, you should go inside whether it’s a tornado or straight-line winds,” Spencer said. She notes that with the amount of tree damage in Zearing Monday, certainly if anyone had been outside, they could have gotten hurt badly.
“We are using the outdoor warning system to warn people (of dangerous conditions). Once people are inside, they can tune into their radios to find out exactly what is going on,” she said.
On Tuesday morning, the weather picture looked much better, but Story County Emergency Management was still monitoring the levels of the Skunk and Squaw rivers, which were both expected to crest in the early afternoon, Spencer said. She added that the weather picture looked a bit better for the rest of the week, with Saturday being the next chance for any type of weather event. “We’re hoping that these dry days will help bring some of these flood levels down,” she said.
O’Connor said about Mondays’ storm that she is especially happy she lives in a small town when something like this happens. “Everybody came out immediately to see what they could do to help.” And when she was a few miles away in Zearing hunkered in that X-ray room, O’Connor’s two teenage daughters were home alone, but they were soon checked on by at least seven family friends. That’s a small town. “Everybody pitches in to see what they can do to help,” said O’Connor.