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6 First Alert Severe Weather Awareness Week: December tornado outbreak

WOWT 6 News Live at 6:30
Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 7:16 PM CDT
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NEOLA, Iowa (WOWT) - 2021 brought plenty of severe weather to the Midwest, from major snows to severe storms and high winds. It also brought dozens upon dozens of tornados on a single day — in the winter.

As part of our 6 First Alert Severe Weather Awareness Week, 6 Weather is re-examining Dec. 15, when a powerful spring-like storm system triggered a historic outbreak of tornadoes in the dead of winter.

It was around 3 p.m. on a warm December afternoon when the 6 First Alert team first began warning about tornadoes close to Columbus. It didn’t take long for those storms to reach Neola.

“I left here like around 4:15... because you guys kept saying 4:30,” Kevin Zimmerman said.

Moments later, a tornado blew through Zimmerman Sales & Service.

SURVEYING THE DAMAGE

“We just kind of took the skid loader and shoved the wall back... It busted these poles off,” he said. “(We) shoved the wall back and just framed it out just to seal it up.”

This was one of 120 confirmed tornadoes across four states that day — the largest outbreak on record for the month of December. Sixty-three of those tornadoes touched down in Iowa — a record for any time of year.

The Iowa town of Neola was hit hard.

“Well, we had about a 40-foot hole in the roof... and it blew out the other side,” Zimmerman said. “This whole driveway was just destroyed. It was a mess.”

Evidence of the storm still dots Zimmerman’s buildings.

“You can see holes in the roof there... That building has got a whole bunch of holes in it; that one is only about four or five years old. This used to be our electrical shop,” he said.

Strangest of all: a rafter embedded in the way.

“Wee that hole there... There’s the rafter. It blew through that hole, and it went through to the other side,” he said.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

Unusual warmth and humidity moved in during the afternoon hours that day, with Omaha setting a new all-time high for the month of December at 74 degrees.

That spring-like warmth quickly turned dangerous, producing damaging winds up to 100 miles per hour and many tornadoes along the entire path.

“You know, you don’t want to really believe it,” Zimmerman said.

An EF-2 tornado with winds up to 125 mph cut a path for 6.7 miles.

It made Zimmerman a believer — that spring-like temperatures in the middle of winter can come with a terrible price tag. He said they plan to build a new office building, and not repair the current one.

He estimated the damages to his operation at about $1 million.

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