A widespread wave of windstorms ripped through Iowa and Illinois last week, delaying some school startup plans amid challenges already presented by COVID-19.
Carlyn Wessel, a school bus driver trainer for the Iowa Department of Education, said some of her colleagues in the eastern part of the state described the storm as the worst they’ve ever experienced, despite tornadoes that frequent the area. Wessel said she feared for her life, as she was stuck in the storm while attempting to return home while spending the day in a nearby town.
The derecho, a widespread and straight-lined windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms, is different from a tornado, which is a “twisted” wind. Last week’s storm was described by some on as ground as having hurricane-like force. In fact, with 80 to 85 mph winds, the storm did show characteristics of a category 1 hurricane.
It reportedly began in Nebraska and traveled from the Missouri River on the western side of Iowa east to the Mississippi River on Aug. 10. The storm then traveled into Illinois, with wind reaching speeds of 117 mph and lasting upwards of an hour.
“I got into the worst part of it and, I’m telling you, I thought I was a goner,” Wessel relayed. “[I thought] my car was going to blow into the cornfield and roll over and kill me.”
The 20-year veteran transportation director explained that she couldn’t see anything, comparing the experience to a severe snowstorm. She described that her new Ford Explorer was tipping back and forth as the winds roared. She said she sat stopped on the highway for 45 minutes as debris from buildings flew by and struck other vehicles.
“I got back to my home, and it was the worst I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wessel said. “I have three trees [down] in my front yard, and two in my backyard. So, it was pretty disappointing to get home and find that. It was very scary.”
Brian Cruise, the transportation director for Linn-Mar Community Schools, also said it was the worst storm he has ever seen.
“We have all seen tornados, but those are usually very brief,” Cruise said. “This was like an hour-long tornado that was 25 miles-plus wide. Our building fared very well, but a building on the neighboring property was destroyed and sent debris into our building and our vehicle fleet. From the inside of our building, it sounded like our building was coming apart, but it was actually debris hitting.”
He said state officials were just completing the district’s bus inspections when he received the word that a major storm had passed through Ames, Iowa, and was headed his way. Some staff was able to get home before the storm hit. The rest stayed hunkered down at the transportation facility.
“There were five transportation department employees and one of the state inspectors who remained at our facility,” Cruise shared. “Civil defense sirens were sounded, and the sky looked very ominous, so we took cover in an interior room in the shop.”
Nine days later, many communities are still without power.
What Storm Means for School Startup
Linn-Mar Community Schools, located in Marion and about 100 miles east of Ames, was supposed to start school on Aug. 24. However, the opening is now delayed until Sept. 14, to give school officials time to clean up the destruction that the storm left behind. Wessel confessed she doesn’t think three weeks will be enough time.
Still, that is the projected date, according to the school board meeting on Monday night. Wessel said she anticipates it could be pushed back due to the extent of the damage.
Cruise said half of his van fleet, approximately 25 vehicles, and four of the district’s school buses are severely damaged. He added two school buildings were damaged in the storm, one with extensive roof damage that will need to be repaired prior to the district’s new start date.
Cruise added his district is still assessing the total cost of the damage.
Meanwhile, Wessel said officials at nearby Cedar Rapids Community School District told her they too are delaying the start date, which remains unknown at this writing. Wessel explained approximately 17 of the district’s buildings were damaged in the storm. It also must clean up the trees around the school and ensure the buses are working properly.
Iowa City Community School District wasn’t hit as hard as nearby Marion and Cedar Rapids, Wessel said, and is planning on starting school on time. The district website lists Sept. 8 as the school start date.
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In addition to fixing buses, districts also need to be aware of the fallen trees that are scattered across the sidewalks, as they could present challenges for students walking to school or the school bus stop, Wessel advised.
She said she worries about children walk in the street to avoid a fallen tree. “That is really dangerous, so [districts] are going to have to make sure that all the sidewalks are clear before they can start having the kids get on buses. … If somebody gets hit by a car and districts started school, they should have known better,” she said, alluding to increased liability.
How Does the Storm Impact Virtual Learning?
“The vast majority of our community is still without power a week later,” Cruise told School Transportation News. “Even those with access to equipment and technology struggle during these times. To me, that indicates that there will be a serious difficulty for those who have limited access to the correct technology.”
Linn-Marr Community Schools will be starting with a hybrid model of education for the first two weeks for grades kindergarten through sixth, to ensure social distancing amid COVID-19. After that, those students will return back for all in-person education. However, grades seventh through twelfth will remain virtual for the entire first quarter.
Wessel added with power continuing to be down she doesn’t know how teachers will be able to prepare for the coming year.