Several funnel clouds and tornadoes menaced southwest Iowa’s Cass County Tuesday afternoon, but residents in a six-county area who rely on weather radio were clueless.
The National Weather Service weather radio transmitter near Hancock, in Pottawattamie County, has been down due to an ice and snowstorm last December. Cass County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Kennon says he first became aware of the severe weather when the phone started ringing.
“About 2:30, we got multiple calls from people reporting a funnel cloud,” Kennon says. “I went and got on Highway 71 and even from just south of Atlantic, you could clearly see a funnel cloud.” The funnel didn’t appear to be spinning much at first, but that all changed as Kennon got approached it.
“From the distance, you couldn’t really see the rotation but as you got closer, it fingered down closer to the ground and it may’ve reached the ground,” Kennon says. “As soon as it got near the ground, it dissipated and went farther back up and it finally just roped out by the time I got down there, but that was a good ten minutes of me watching.”
Unless you happened to be outside, had a scanner or smartphone emergency alert app, residents were in the dark about the threat. The transmitter, KZZ-52, serves all of Pottawattamie, and parts of Cass, Montgomery, Audubon, Shelby and Harrison counties. There was no warning from the National Weather Service until about 20 minutes after the funnel cloud was first reported.
Kennon said he’s received calls from people wondering why the warning didn’t go out sooner, and why the weather radio alert didn’t work. The issue boils down to the weather transmitter being off-line and Kennon says he’s complained to “numerous entities” about it. “We are very much dependent on that Hancock tower,” Kennon says, “and quite frankly, weather radio has been worthless to us since that December incident.”
The tornado was visible from as far away as Interstate 80 and there were no reports of injuries or damage. Paul Fajman, a meterologist at the National Weather Service office in Valley, Nebraska, said they’re on track to get the transmitter repaired by sometime next month, about eight months after it was knocked offline.
Fajman says getting the transmitter operational involves gathering the parts and personnel. “They’re waiting for a part to come in and then they need to hire a tower crew to test the integrity of the tower and then to be able to go up and install the replacement equipment,” Fajman says.
Before that can happen, though, Fajman says they need approval. They’re waiting for officials with the central region headquarters in Kansas City, who make facility and equipment decisions like this, to get clarification on an analysis on the tower, which they hope to get yet this week. If that tests well, they’ll get the go ahead to set-up the antenna to become operational next month. In the meantime, to be notified via cell or landline, residents can sign up for Alert Iowa, which is available on most county Emergency Management websites.
(By Ric Hanson, KJAN, Atlantic/photos courtesy of KJAN listeners)