Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Although the intense, swirling, often deadly storms are not as frequent in Iowa as in Kansas or Oklahoma, almost the entire state of Iowa is in what is called "tornado alley." Before it hits the ground, the potential storm is called a funnel cloud. Funnel clouds are usually sited in advance of a tornado, and often cause people to take shelter and necessary precautions to prevent loss of life. A twister is another name for a tornado.

Pioneers called tornadoes "cyclones." The proper definition of a cyclone is a large low-pressure area. Inside the cyclonic system, thunderstorms may develop and when the systems are intense, hail storms and tornadoes may result.

Tornadoes can occur in Iowa during any month of the year. However, conditions are more favorable during spring or early summer. Half of all tornadoes occur in May and June, and most of them happen between 4 and 10 PM. 70% of all tornadoes approach from the southwest and travel in a northeast direction. Nearly 30% approach from the northwest traveling southeastward. In very rare circumstances, a tornado may come from the southeast. These are usually very deadly storms, and sometimes represent a "return" of the funnel system.

Tornadoes range in size from a few yards in width, to as much as two or three miles. The tornado may dip down for only a few yards, or may travel along the ground for hundreds of miles. On March 18, 1925 one started in Missouri, went across Illinois, and ended in Indiana about 3 ˝ hours later, having traveled 219 miles! Wind speeds will range from 100-300 mph inside these storms, which will last from only a few seconds up to as much as five minutes.

A tornado can derail a train; it can bury a straw or a blade of grass into a post or tree trunk; and it can de-feather chickens. Early settlers heard tales from the Indians about these storms. The earliest known tornado happened in Henry County on June 1, 1837. The earliest on record in Van Buren County was on June 5, 1844.

Van Buren County averages only 10 tornadoes per decade….that’s one per year. Still, this is twice as many as Davis County suffers and 5 times as many as touch down in Jefferson County!

On May 18, 1898 the Mississippi Steamship The Saturn was hit and damaged between Illinois and Iowa on the river. During the storm, crew members noted clouds filled with timber, trees, boards and an animal (either a cow or a horse) inside the whirlwind. A board ten feet long penetrated the deck floor. The twister was accompanied by hail, thus the roar of the storm was heard for many miles.

(Accounts of Tornadoes in Iowa. John L. Stanford. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1977.)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick