One year later, a stormy reminder

The twister outbreak of March 31, 2023, which included storms in Wellman and Hills, was Iowa’s worst in 73 years

By Paul D. Bowker
Posted 3/30/24

On the afternoon of March 31 last year, a Friday, early spring winds howled across Iowa.

Severe storms were in the forecast.

Another typical late March day, right?

The skies grew dark …

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One year later, a stormy reminder

The twister outbreak of March 31, 2023, which included storms in Wellman and Hills, was Iowa’s worst in 73 years


On the afternoon of March 31 last year, a Friday, early spring winds howled across Iowa.

Severe storms were in the forecast.

Another typical late March day, right?

The skies grew dark and threatening quickly.

The first twister, an EF3 with winds of 150 miles per hour, dropped out of the clouds before 4 p.m. in Wapello County and traveled northeast toward Keota, popping back up into the clouds as it crossed Highway 92.

Just as that tornado dissipated, a monstrous EF4 with 170 mph winds formed at the same time and dropped out of the sky just southwest of Keota, severely damaging several homes and heading toward Wellman.

Those two storms kicked off a tornado outbreak that included 29 twisters in eastern Iowa alone over two hours and 145 total twisters over the upper Midwest region. Iowa hadn’t seen such a twister outbreak since 1950. It was the worst outbreak in state history in March.

“The storm system just kept developing, getting bigger and bigger,” said Marissa Reisen, Washington County Emergency Management Coordinator. “Even after the big one had passed through our county and dissipated, there were still severe thunderstorm conditions throughout the entire county. Many of us who were out spotting took cover in random homes and barns, and it was legitimately one of the scariest days of my life.”

There were no fatalities.

One year later, that one-day outbreak is a reminder of what can happen on a spring day and why preparation for a quick-moving storm system is so crucial.

While a tornado can strike at any time of year, the biggest twister months in the Midwest, or Tornado Alley, is April, May and June. Typically, Iowa, which is located just east of Tornado Alley, sees most of its twisters in May and June. But last year’s tornado outbreak on March 31 made March the month with the most twisters in 2023.

In Wellman, one of the tornado sirens did not sound during the twister outbreak, leading to an initiative by the Washington County Emergency Management Agency to update the county’s alarm system, including radios that send signals from the dispatch to sirens for activation and computer software.

“Replacement and installation of new sirens is dependent on funding,” Reisen said.

The agency is hoping to get a grant approved by the Washington County Riverboat Foundation. Washington County, along with the cities of Kalona, Washington, Riverside, Wellman and Brighton have committed funds. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has applied for state funding to help cover the cost of a siren at Lake Darling.

Once the project is completed, Washington County will have 16 tornado sirens instead of the current 13, Reisen told The News.

Among communities served by The News, those with designated shelter areas include Kalona and Wellman. The Community Center and YMCA in Kalona is one of those shelter locations, along with the City Hall basement in Wellman. The Washington Y is also a designated shelter. Schools have their own tornado plans and shelters.

The National Weather Service advises against going outside or traveling during an incoming storm due to flying debris. Instead, the best move is to seek cover in a room or hallway that does not have windows.

Weather alerts are available on cell phones, in addition to following storm paths online or via TV or radio coverage.

The damage in Keota was among the worst of the March 2023 outbreak, including a vehicle being tossed 1,000 feet into a field. A portion of a University of Iowa lab in Coralville was destroyed.

The boys and girls track teams from Mid-Prairie High School were among volunteer groups helping out with cleanup in the week after the storm.

“Seeing the devastation was crazy,” said Dain Jeppson, the boys head coach.

In Hills, homes located north of Casey’s were ripped apart when a twister dropped down just west of town and crossed Highway 218. All of those homes have since been rebuilt.

The EF4 twister, the biggest of Iowa’s outbreak and estimated to be 700 yards wide by the National Weather Service, was on the ground for more than 20 miles and passed just west of Wellman, knocking out a 325-foot cell phone tower.

The storms were caused by a strong cold front moving across Iowa that clashed with unseasonably warm temperatures and a moist atmosphere. Most of Iowa was placed in a tornado watch hours before the storms hit.

The storms arrived in eastern Iowa just as people were leaving workplaces for home on a busy Friday afternoon. In some towns, high school soccer teams were preparing to play games. All were called off.

In some cases, such as part of a storm that hit Frytown, tornadoes were not verified until the National Weather Service reviewed radar images and other data. An EF-0 twister, with winds estimated at 85 mph, hit Frytown for just five minutes, traveling 6.1 miles. The same twister grew into an EF-2, with 125 mph winds, and hit Coralville and Solon.

Severe Weather Awareness Week was held this past week in Iowa.

For more information on alerts and preparedness, go to


In Kalona

Community Center/YMCA

511 C Ave.

Interior hallways and rest rooms on the lower level and main floor are designated as shelter locations.


In Wellman

City Hall

316 8th Ave.

If a severe storm is approaching, members of the public have access to the basement at City Hall.


In Washington

YMCA of Washington County

520 W. 5th St.



How rough and destructive are those tornadoes? Here’s a look at the Enhanced Fujita Scale, better known as the EF Scales, which determines the severity of a tornado based on estimated winds and observed damage. It has been used by the National Weather Service since 2007.

EF0: 65-85 mph winds. Defined as weak.

EF1: 86-110 mph winds. Moderate.

EF2: 111-135 mph winds. Significant.

EF3: 136-165 mph winds. Severe.

EF4: 166-200 mph winds. Extreme.

EF5: Over 200 mph winds. Catastrophic. The last EF5 tornado in the United States was in 2013 in Moore, Oklahoma. The tornado in Winterset, Iowa, that killed seven in 2022 was an EF4.

SOURCE: National Weather Service



What to do:

Have a plan. Identity a safe interior room or place for shelter. Seek out a basement or small room without windows. A bathroom without windows is a good place. Let all family members know where that is and run a drill.

Gather emergency supplies: food, water, first-aid kits, batteries.

Wear a helmet.

Cover yourself with a mattress of sleeping bag, if possible.

Be aware of tornado sirens.

Get weather alerts.

Stay tuned to TV or radio broadcasts of severe weather.


What NOT to do:

Avoid windows or doors.

Avoid going outside to look at the storm. Winds carry debris.

Avoid upper floors or vehicles.

Don’t get in your car and try to outrun the storm.

Don’t enter a damaged building.

SOURCES: American Red Cross, National Safety Council, National Weather Service

Tornado outbreak, 2023, Iowa, Wellman, Keota, Hills, Washington County Emergency Management