Did tornado form over WB? by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · June 28, 2013
Many folks throughout West Branch ducked into basements or windowless rooms after Iowa City reported a tornado touching down and heading this way.
That particular tornado swung northeast, up toward Solon and missed this city, but some residents believe a small, brief tornado may have formed near West Branch. And a meterologist suggested that maybe they were right.
Tornado sirens did not sound in the city as West Branch Fire Department storm spotters located at Highway 6 south of Downey and at Sharpless Auctions did not see the Iowa City funnel come this way, Fire Chief Kevin Stoolman said.
The storm spotters took up those locations after Johnson County went under a tornado warning which then included Cedar County. The tornado was reportedly moving about 50 miles per hour. At first, the warning lasted until 3 p.m., but then was extended to 3:15 p.m.
Stoolman said West Branch saw some gusts up to about 40 mph, but that only lasted a couple of minutes. When the tornado reached Cedar County, it was north of West Branch, he said.
However, residents reported seeing a rotating cell south of Interstate 80, somewhere in line with West Branch High School, about 3 p.m. Monday.
Residents Peggy Guetzko, Pat Maher and Tammy Oaks took storm photographs and posted them on Facebook or Twitter, which the West Branch Times showed to KCRG-TV9 Midday Meteorologist Kaj O’Mara.
The photographers or others commented that they thought clouds looked like wall clouds, which are associated with tornadoes. O’Mara said they look like “a classic shelf cloud,” which is associated with high winds.
“The leading edge of clouds like this are usually very ragged-looking (known as scud clouds), and do not oftentimes form tornadoes, though they are menacing-looking,” he said.
Shelf clouds “will usually accompany most straight-line wind events,” he said.
Resident Mike Colbert and Heidi Zahner-Younts said they saw the cloud south of Interstate 80 rotating. That is Maher’s picture.
O’Mara, however, commented specifically on Guetzko’s picture.
“There’s a small intersection of that (Guetzko) image that I suppose could be a rain-wrapped funnel, but I would have to be there to see if it’s rotating there or not,” he said. “Many times, those low-hanging clouds will not rotate much, and at that point are not tornado producers. If they start to spin though, it could get to that point.”
“I took some pictures (of storm clouds near Oasis) until I heard a freight-train sound,” Guetzko said. “I thought ‘… isn’t that what most people say they hear when a tornado is near? I should run to a safe spot.’ I ran.”
Maher took a picture of what she thought was a “wall” cloud and a funnel-shaped cloud dipping toward the ground south of Interstate 80 and West Branch High School.
Zahner-Younts posted on Twitter that she and daughter Olivia thought they “just saw our first tornado.”
“So freaked I can barely type,” she tweeted. “All safely in basement now.”
Zahner-Younts told the West Branch Times later that she was sitting on Main Street waiting for her son to come from a friend’s home when she saw the “wall” cloud reaching from west to east and a “big, white funnel coming straight down.”
“It looked like what you see on TV — exactly — and it was moving pretty slow,” she said. “It passed in front of us, and then the wind and rain started.”
She and Olivia became “extremely concerned” and were “pretty certain” they were looking at a tornado.
Colbert said he saw the same cloud formation while driving on Main Street toward his home in Greenview.
“It was like 2:50 or 2:52 (p.m.) after I went to pick up a kid who was alone,” he said. “(The cloud) was toward the high school. … I tore out of there, back down Cedar-Johnson Road. But when I turned around I couldn’t find it. It was just very brief.”
He said he, at first, was not certain of what he saw until he read a post by Zahner-Younts’ on Facebook.
“I was glad to see Heidi posted that,” he said. “It made me feel like I wasn’t crazy.”
After seeing the cloud, “then all the wind and rain started coming,” Colbert said.
He said his home experienced some power flickers, but “we’re all OK.”
Oaks captured a picture of a cloud curving into a second cloud that looked like a white funnel wrapped in a third, darker cloud. She said she took the picture while walking to her brother-in-law’s home where she and her children were going for shelter.
“The winds just started whipping up,” she said. “We got lots of wind and rain.”
She had just gotten a text from her husband, Bryan, who was working at Lake McBride near Solon. He was with co-workers in a basement hiding from the storm.
“When I saw those clouds, I thought, ‘You never know,’” she said. “But we’re all OK.”
West Branch experienced a thunderstorm and heavy rain, but City Administrator Matt Muckler said the city only heard about some downed limbs.
Still, the warning sent many into basements. West Branch Library staff took patrons, including children, into the restrooms for about 15 to 20 minutes; and Kids Club staff took children into the fourth-grade pod to wait out the storm.
After the storm, Zahner-Younts posted a question on Facebook about why the tornado sirens did not sound. That prompted a discussion on when to sound the sirens.
“There are definitely pros and cons to this,” Jaymie Morey Ransford noted. “But I can tell you one pro for sure — that if you are in West Branch and you hear your sirens … it is no joke and you need to respond quickly. I grew up in a small town in NE Iowa that had the same protocol as West Branch, so if you heard them — you had NO reason to doubt them. I then lived many years in North Liberty and Coralville where I quickly learned that when the siren went off, it could be from something going on from the other side of the county. So after a few times of panicking and finding shelter, only to later find out it was many miles away … I pretty much ignored them (which could have been bad!).”