For workers on off-shore drilling platforms, warnings of a dangerous storm can’t come soon enough.
And with those platforms being positioned at ever greater distances from land, oil and natural gas companies rely on a Rockwell Collins subsidiary for early notification of an approaching storm that would require worker evacuation.
Wilkens Weather Technologies became part of Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins in 2010 with the purchase of Air Routing International, which serves the business aviation sector. The Houston, Texas, company employs 25 degreed meteorologists who provide weather forecasting coverage for off-shore oil drilling and shipping around the clock.
“Richard Wilkens, who founded Wilkens Weather Technologies in 1977, was working for another company in Houston when he decided to open his own weather forecasting service,” said Mark Walquist, manager of weather support for Rockwell Collins. “Wilkens wanted to focus on forecasting for the oil and natural gas industry.
“At that time, the offshore oil industry was relatively young, the rigs were located in shallow water and the business was concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico. About a year later, some of Wilkens’s colleagues from his previous employer decided to join him.”
In 1978, Wilkens, along with business partners in Houston, formed Air Routing International to provide business aviation weather services, air security and flight routing. In 1983, Wilkens Weather Technology was merged into Air Routing International.
As oil and natural gas exploration companies initially concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico expanded globally, Wilkens grew with them.
“Right now, we service all the major oil and natural gas fields across the world,” he said. “We have quite a base in West Africa and Southeast Asia.
“The weather forecasting in West Africa is not that robust. Our customers depend on us for notification of squall lines moving off the coast of West Africa.
“We also have a number of customers across the United States that need to be alerted to severe weather or flash flooding.”
Wilkens Weather differs from the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center by offering customized alerts for specific customer-owned locations as it tracks storm systems. Some clients that require employees to begin evacuating 72 hours before a storm hits use Wilkens Weather to provide a timeline for the storm’s approach.
Brian Kruger, senior director of applications and services for Rockwell Collins, said Air Routing International with about 200 employees handles everything for pilots of corporate aircraft from plotting their route to making hotel reservations for the flight crew.
“We monitor the aircraft from point A to point B all over the world. If we see a violent storm forming along their route, we look for a different vector to get them around it,” Kruger said.
“We look for the best route to get them there in the shortest amount of time using the least amount of fuel.”
Rockwell Collins’s expertise in the development of the next generation of air traffic control is paying dividends for Air Routing International, he added.
“The air space is getting tighter in the North Atlantic and Europe, with less separation between aircraft,” Kruger said. “Westbound and eastbound traffic is getting closer together as technology continues to improve.
“Some of the airports are flying into smaller airports that don’t have the sophistication of larger airports and we’re able to help them with that.”
Kruger said Air Routing International is able to access Rockwell Collins avionics and communications expertise when there is an issue involving evolving technology. Rockwell Collins, through its Ascend Flight Information Solutions unit, has 65 global agents supporting customers in 120 countries.
“When a corporate jet arrives at its destination, we have one of our agents there to meet them, assist the VIPs through customs and take care of the aircraft in terms of servicing and security,” Kruger said. “They also help the crew understand the country’s native culture.”
Walquist said Wilkens Weather continues to look for new opportunities, including having several meteorologists work directly with the crews of ships to understand how they use the company’s forecasts.
“We’re hoping to offer that opportunity to as many of our meteorologists as possible,” Walquist said. “The more we understand what our customers need, the better that we can serve them.”
City and county officials along the Wapsi River say they’re feeling more optimistic following an updated forecast Thursday.
Though the National Weather Service initially predicted the Wapsinipicon River would crest at a record 27 feet on Friday, an updated forecast Thursday afternoon indicated flooding may not be as bad as initially anticipated, with the river cresting around 22 feet on Friday, and falling below flood level, which is 14 feet, by Monday.
Ron French, Anamosa assistant fire chief, said the town felt prepared for flooding Thursday morning, adding it didn’t appear the water had risen much since about 11 p.m. Wednesday night.
“It hasn’t changed our efforts,” French said. “We’re kind of in good shape.”
French said they completed the dike along E34 in Anamosa around 9:30 Thursday morning, and if river levels go as predicted they will hardly reach halfway up the structure. He said the town is no longer looking for volunteers to fill sandbags and, if they don’t use them, they’ll pass their extras on to other towns down the road like Olin.
“All is well, we’re just going to be watching the river and seeing what it does,” French said.
He said E34 will remain closed through the weekend near Wapsipinicon State Park and Tapken’s Conevenience Plus until volunteers are able to do some cleanup.
Brenda Leonard, emergency management coordinator for Jones County, said no residential homes or major buildings had been significantly damaged by floodwaters throughout the county, but there was likely some flooding in basements from groundwater.
She said towns along the river will continue to sandbag, and the county had received pumps from the state to keep sewer systems going in Olin and Oxford Junction, though they hadn’t had any failures yet.
A flood warning also remained in effect for Buchanan at Independence Thursday afternoon, where the National Weather Service reported the river level was falling Thursday. Rick Wulfekuhle, emergency management coordinator for Buchanan County, said the water levels near Independence topped out at 13.42 feet and is now receding. Flood level is at 12 feet, and some low-lying streets were affected.
Wulfekuhle said the county sent three Dump trucks-worth of sandbags down to Anamosa Thursday afternoon because they were no longer needed in Independence. He added that about 24 residences and 8 to 10 businesses were affected by flooding — with water in basements and sewer back up — though the damages are expected to be minor.
As of Thursday afternoon, Wulfekuhle said no injuries had been reported, and there was one request for a rescue effort, in Quasqueton that involved a person being stuck at a home, which was surrounded with water.
The Weather Service initially predicted Independence would experience a record, 24-foot crest Wednesday, and, officials said that leveled off quickly because the rain early Wednesday morning fell directly over the river basin, rather than the watershed.
Though Wulfekuhle said some people were confused and frustrated as to why the forecast changed so drastically, he said he would always prefer to be over-prepared.
“I would rather be prepared, I know it’s a little bit of a hassle, but being prepared is still way better to keep people safe than a situation where we aren’t ready,” Wulfekuhle said. ” As frustrating as it is, at least people were ready for it and reacted well.
The following roads remain closed in Buchanan County:
- W35 south of Quasqueton between 290th and 300th streets.
- Quonset Avenue between 290th and 310th streets.
- 232nd Street between Nelson and Plymouth avenues.
- 310th Street between Vincent and Washington avenues
- Washington Avenue between 260th and 270th streets.
- 250th Street from Quasqueton Diagonal to Pine Creek Avenue.
- Highway 150 south of Independence remains closed at the construction site. Travelers are also advised to avoid using gravel roads as alternate routes.
UPDATE: Central City Fire Chief James O’Leary said the city is prepared to go to “undiscovered places,” with the Wapsinicon River expected to reach never before seen levels in the Linn County community.
O’Leary said the river has previously reached a record level of 22.1 feet. However, he said Wednesday morning that the Linn County Emergency Management Agency has warned him that the river could go one to three feet above that level.
“If we get above that number, now we’re in a territory where we don’t know (what’s going to happen),” he said. “We’ve never been to this level before.”
O’Leary said the city has not had any flooding problems yet, but reinforcements are being lined up to prepare for flooding. Additionally, 320 pallets of filled sandbags are on their way to Central City. O’Leary said residents have not had to fill any sandbags, but residents from Coggon did come to Central City to fill sandbags in order to protect their water treatment plant.
“Right now, we’re just kind of at a standstill,” he said.
Southern Central City is most prone to flooding, O’Leary said. Flooding typically occurs when the river hits 18 feet. The city is not considering mandatory evacuations at this time.
“Right now, we’re not moving anybody until we know what’s going to happen,” he said.
With rising flood waters mere feet away from their home on E. Maple Street in Central City, Hank Helton and Crystal Beauregard went to work on sandbagging before noon Wednesday morning. By 2 p.m., they had a four foot wall built around the residence, but they didn’t do it alone.
The couple said friends, family and even perfect strangers chipped in to help protect the home.
“It’s shocking,” Helton said of the turnout.
Added Beauregard, “Some of them I don’t know, some of them just came up and started helping.”
Though they’ve made significant progress, Beauregard said they have a long way to go before they’ll feel fully protected from the flood waters. Beauregard estimated they’d work all night inside and outside of the house.
The timing of the flood couldn’t be any worse for Linn County Fair participants. The threatening waters led organizers to cancel the fair, with the exception of the 4-H shows, BBQ and fair queen coronation. Those events have been moved from the grandstand to the free entertainment tent.
At this point, O’Leary has resigned to the fact that if the river does flood, there is little that can be done. His focus is now protecting the citizens of Central City.
“Our biggest concern, as a fire department, is the citizens of Central City; making sure they’re safe,” he said. “That’s our ultimate goal. You’re not going to stop it, it’s already coming.”
Elsewhere in Eastern Iowa:
- Delaware County Emergency Management advises people avoid all county roads. Mike Ryan, with Delaware County EMA, said many roads and bridges have been washed out in the county and water has topped roadways. The roads south of Highway 20 are of “greatest concern,” Ryan said.
- Johnson County Emergency Management has asked Solon residents to limit their water usage until 6 p.m. to reduce the strain on the community’s waste water system, which is at 100 percent capacity.
Former Troy Mills assistant fire chief Gary Peiffer said when someone in the small, northern Linn County is in need, it’s not uncommon to see a neighbor or two lend a hand.
So, it came as no surprise to Peiffer that when flood waters threatened about 25 homes in the tiny community along the Wapsipinicon River, dozens of residents turned out to pitch in with filling sandbags.
“The neat thing about it – we didn’t call one person,” Peiffer said. “It’s all volunteers.”
Dozens of people stationed themselves outside of the Troy Mills Fire Department, scooping sand into sandbags. Others then took the backs to homes along the river that needed additional protection. Peiffer said all of the sand was donated. The nearby Troy Store donated ice and the Dam Bar, located between the river and the fire station, donated food for the volunteers.
Troy Mills is keeping an eye on flooding in Independence, said John Olachnovitch. Troy Mills is about a day and a half downstream from the Buchanan County city. With Independence expecting the river there to crest at 24 feet — a record by more than a foot and a half — residents of Troy Mills are preparing for the same later this week.
“All of the neighbors are out helping people get sandbags ready,” Olachnovitch said. “Everybody just starts showing up when their neighbor is in trouble. That the nice thing about small towns.”
Olachnovitch said he lives along the river, but has built a sandbag wall around his home. Only time will tell if it will withstand the flood, he said.
“Nature’s going to do what nature’s going to do,” he said with a laugh. “You just try to protect yourself the best you can.”
UPDATE: Residents and business owners in the Buchanan County city of Independence are preparing for flooding the likes of which has never been seen here.
The Wapsipinicon River, which bisects the community, was expected to crest at 24 feet by Wednesday afternoon. The previous record high for the river at Independence was 22.35 feet, set in 1999.
“This will be a historic level for us, beyond anything we’ve had in the past,” said Charlie McCardle, commission secretary for Buchanan County Emergency Management.
McCardle said the storm that moved through Eastern Iowa Tuesday night into Wednesday morning dropped 4.5 to 6.1 inches of rain. By 10 a.m., the Wapsipinicon River had already breached its banks and was expected to inundate areas along the river.
Buchanan County officials don’t know at this time how many homes and businesses will be affected by the flood.
“We have no estimate at this time,” McCardle said.
Bob Hocker’s home at Third Street NW in Independence will undoubtedly taken on water should the river continue to rise. His back door is less than 20 feet from the river’s banks, but after 37 years in his home, Hocker has no intentions of leaving. Hocker’s home flooded in 1999, as well.
“In 1999, we had three inches of water over our kitchen counter,” he said.
Rather than move, Hocker simply raised the house. With the plumbing, electrical and other utilities on the second floor and a cement slab basement for the first floor, Hocker isn’t too concerned about flooding.
“We’re going to get flooded; we will,” he said. “We designed it to flood. It’s all concrete. We’ll just wash it out.”
Dennis Prinsen lives in Manchester, but is a partner with Gosling & Company, which has an office on First Street in Independence. The office is several hundred feet from the river, but Prinsen and others were building a small sandbag wall around the business. It nearly flooded in 1999, Prinsen said.
“That time, it was right on our doorstep,” Prinsen said.
For Dennis McGlaughlin, of Decorah, it’s not if the two properties near the river his father owns will flood, but how much. McGlaughlin said his father is in a care center; so he and some friends are clearing out his home and the neighboring property.
“We’re emptying the whole house,” McGlaughlin said. “There was fish in the basement of the house last time.”
McGlaughlin’s friends, Michelle and Joel Dinger, of Independence, said they can recall flooding in 2011 that closed the bridges over the Wapsipinicon and shut down roads leading into the community. Highway 150 into Independence is already closed.
Michelle Dinger said when the roads close, Independence is essentially shut off until they reopen.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said.
While the Dingers said they were only experiencing some minor flooding at their residence, they still were keeping an eye on the river levels. The couple lives on the other side of the river.
“We’re going to have to be on the other side of the bridge or we’re not going to get home,” she said.
McCardle said no mandatory evacuations have been ordered, but residents are asked to keep an eye on the river. He also suggested that anyone new to the area since 1999 ask their neighbors about what to expect in terms of flooding in their neighborhood.
With no past experience to go on, McCardle said county officials will have to use their best judgment in responding to this historic flood.
“We have no guidelines to go on,” he said.
Powerful storms that swept through Eastern Iowa Monday have claimed one life.
The Johnson County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that a man injured in Muscatine during the afternoon storms died of his injuries. However, the medical examiner’s office declined to identify the man because all of his family has not been notified.
Matt Shook, Muscatine County’s Emergency Management Director, was still gathering information on the storm Tuesday afternoon. Shook said the storm hit the northwest side of Muscatine. Krieger Auto Group, 506 Highway 61, is located near where the storm hit.
A man working for Krieger was seriously injured in the storm and later died of his injuries.
“From what I understand, the storm came in extremely rapidly,” Shook said. “They were seeking shelter and apparently he was struck by debris.”
Shook said he was doing a storm assessment with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities Tuesday afternoon. The man who died of his injuries at Krieger was the only injury that was reported, Shook said.
A message left with Doug Krieger of Krieger Auto Group was not returned Tuesday afternoon.
Shook said the National Weather Service believes Monday’s strong storm spawned a tornado.
“What they’re explaining to me is it wasn’t a typical tornado,” Shook said.
Shook said the storm began as a strong thunderstorm with powerful winds. While a typical tornado forms downward from the storm front, Shook said this one spawned from the ground up. He said the tornado didn’t reach a height that could be registered by the weather service’s radar.
The storm continued in a southwesterly direction from Krieger for three to four miles before continuing into the country.
“It’s actually a fairly isolated tract,” he said.
DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad on Wednesday requested a presidential disaster declaration for 47 Iowa counties that incurred significant damage in recent severe weather events.
In a letter to President Obama, Branstad cited damaging winds, tornadoes, heavy rains and thunderstorms resulting in severe flooding beginning May 19 and continuing through June 23.
Counties included in the request for federal Public Assistance Program funding were Appanoose, Benton, Buchanan, Buena Vista, Butler, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Clay, Clayton, Crawford, Davis, Delaware, Des Moines, Fayette, Floyd, Franklin, Greene, Grundy, Hardin, Henry, Ida, Iowa, Jasper, Johnson, Jones, Keokuk, Lee, Linn, Louisa, Lyon, Mahaska, Marshall, Mitchell, Monona, Monroe, O’Brien, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Poweshiek, Sac, Sioux, Story, Tama, Wapello, Webster, Winnebago and Wright.
A joint federal, state and local preliminary damage assessment of the 47 counties found severe weather caused an estimated $22 million worth of damage that could be eligible under the Public Assistance Program. Public Assistance funds may be used to rebuild damaged infrastructure that may include roads, bridges, culverts and other public facilities, or to cover costs of emergency work during, and debris removal after the storms.
In addition to requesting the presidential disaster declaration, Branstad activated the Iowa Individual Assistance Program in Lee and Webster counties. The governor originally declared the counties disaster counties on June 7 as a result of storms and flooding that began in the state on May 19.
The Iowa Individual Assistance Program provides grants of up to $5,000 for home or car repairs, replacement of clothing or food, and for the expense of temporary housing. Original receipts are required for those seeking reimbursement for actual expenses related to storm recovery.
The grant application and instructions are available at the “Disaster Assistance” link on the Iowa Department of Human Services website: www.dhs.iowa.gov.