What started out as a pretty, warm day in northern Iowa ended as a dangerous night when a tornado formed suddenly in southern Minnesota.
In August 2017, my husband and I were in northern Iowa with some fellow roller coaster friends to ride the coasters at Arnolds Park Amusement Park on Lake Okoboji. The nearby towns were so tiny that we had to stay at a small motel in Spencer, Iowa, 30 minutes south.
After dinner at an adjacent diner, we ate refreshing ice cream cones outside of a small ice cream shop and marveled at the beautiful clear-blue skies and lack of humidity (a delightful change from central Florida’s August weather).
We headed back to our tiny first-floor motel room and caught local news coverage of an outdoor art festival in nearby Storm Lake, Iowa (where my grandmother lived while studying for her bachelor’s degree from Buena Vista College). We closed our room’s drapes since we were on the first floor of our motel and didn’t want folks looking in our window.
After checking programming on the few TV channels the motel offered, we decided to watch the Weather Channel, which periodically broadcasts a special report on what to do when there is a tornado in your area. We both grew up in tornado-prone areas in the Midwest, so we had developed a set response to tornado threats over the years.
A tornado-warning siren blared suddenly outside of our motel room. We were startled and opened the drapes to discover dark, low clouds in the sky. The clouds had moved quickly since we had eaten ice cream cones in clear weather just an hour earlier!
We quickly decided to watch local TV coverage from Sioux City, Iowa and found an anxious meteorologist carefully tracking the path of a tornado that had developed in southern Minnesota and was quickly heading to northern Iowa. The National Weather Service predicted that it would hit various towns at specific times. We were horrified to discover that Spencer, Iowa was on the list. It would hit our small town in just 20 minutes!
We peered out the window and recognized a new threat: our motel was adjacent to a car dealership. We could visualize all of the cars being thrown against our motel-room window and smashing glass and steel everywhere.
The other liability of this motel became apparent when we realized the motel had no central shelter or basement to provide to guests, either. We implemented the number-one storm rule in Florida: head to the safest windowless room, which was the tiny bathroom with only a toilet and tub.
We quickly dressed and pulled our luggage into the bathroom while keeping an eye on the storm’s path on the local TV channels. I took some photos of the TV screen with my iPhone. One big problem was that the tornado warnings were for specific counties in Minnesota and Iowa, which we did not know. We kept checking our phones to find out where those counties were and if they were near our small town.
Spencer was in the crosshairs for a good 15 minutes, so we texted our siblings and told them our hotel name, room number and town in case the worst happened and we were killed by the tornado. We also did a lot of praying!
Five minutes before the tornado was supposed to hit Spencer, it changed its path and started heading south toward Storm Lake (the town with the outdoor art festival) instead east toward Spencer. We peered out the window every few minutes to see the skies, and it did look like the clouds in the west changed course and headed south instead of toward us.
We waited anxiously inside the bathroom for another ten minutes or so until we learned that Spencer was no longer in the path of the tornado. We exhaled and slowly brought ourselves and our luggage into the main motel room.
We texted our relatives to say that we were safe. It took quite a while for us to calm down and try to get some sleep.
What a beautiful sight to see a clear night sky outside of our motel window again!
The next day we compared notes with our fellow bleary-eyed roller coaster friends at Arnolds Park. Some of them had been stranded in Fort Dodge and Ames when the tornadoes were predicted to head their way, and they did not make it to their hotels until the middle of the night.
We learned a few lessons that day in Spencer, Iowa:
Check out accommodations in advance to see where you would go in case of a tornado,
Become familiar with the counties surrounding your accommodations, and
Don’t stay in a place that is next to a car dealership!
Diane Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on leadership, radio, life story writing, Tai Chi, healthy aging, literature, science, politics, sociology, and humanities. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI course catalog and for OLLI Connects.