Our Des Moines: Why the ever-present wind (almost) never stops blowing in Des Moines

Bill Steiden
Des Moines Register

It became my constant companion during the year-plus I was stranded at home. 

Every day, I felt its presence. It spattered raindrops and snowflakes against the panes of the north-facing window next to my desk and rattled the old fence between my neighbor's yard and mine. Some days it would gently swirl the dead leaves from the previous fall and flutter the wind chimes on the back patio; others, it would push so hard against the house that the roof beams creaked .

It spoke continually, whispering, moaning, sometimes howling — especially on winter nights when I sat at my computer in the otherwise darkened house, my early rising wife long since gone to bed.

Always the wind. It was the counterpoint to my workday routine, injecting moments of distraction and occasional alarm. I learned that when it began to gust, I must hurry to roll up the Des Moines flag or risk having it ripped from its stanchion on the front porch. In warm weather, it was a race to lower the deck umbrella before it tore or toppled.

James Patten of Waukee coaxes his Sutton 16 kite off the ground  June 27, 2021, at Ridge Pointe Pavilion near his home.

I also discovered that a 15-pound paving brick wasn't enough to hold down the fabric cover on my gas grill, and replaced it with one weighing twice that much. Tomato cages in the garden had to be staked deep or they would topple, too, taking some of the crop with them. There are only so many uses for green tomatoes.

Des Moines is the latest and I hope final stop in a career that has taken this Kentucky native from the North to the South and back north again. Nowhere from Ohio to the west coast of Florida to central Georgia to the shores of Lake Michigan have I encountered winds as persistent as those in Des Moines. She who has journeyed with me observes, "It just never stops."

That's an empirical observation, according to National Weather Service readings at Des Moines International Airport. An examination of a year of daily records turned up not a single notation of "wind: calm," and no month went by without at least 10 days when gusts exceeded 30 mph — often for several days in a row. That's not exactly a gale, but plenty sufficient to upend patio furniture and send kiddie pools flying into neighbors' yards.

Part of the kite collection of James Patten of Waukee.

And, of course, on one occasion there was an actual gale: the August derecho that ripped across Iowa and left Polk Boulevard's sycamore allée near my west Drake home a wasteland of fallen branches.

More:Spring in Iowa brings thoughts of sunshine, flowers — and neighbors' dangerous, rotting trees

Why Des Moines' wind seems never-ending

There's good reason for Des Moines' hyperactive breeze. Meteorologist Mike Fowle of the National Weather Service office in Johnston explains that Des Moines sits near the middle of a sort of giant mixing bowl for weather, where the warmth of the south meets the cold of the north. Combined with the storm systems that roll off the Rockies and across the plains, "It's the sweet spot for wind," Fowle says.

That's something the actuarial minds in this insurance-oriented city are acutely aware of. They can exercise their influence to reduce risks like auto accidents, floods and fires. But there is little they can do to reduce the steady stream of wind damage that makes up a large proportion of claims, acknowledges Tom O'Meara, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Iowa. 

The wind feels like my nemesis when I pay $75 to have ripped screens repaired, or it tears my back storm door off its hinges, necessitating a much costlier replacement. But Des Moines Register agriculture reporter Donnelle Eller scoffs when I speak of the Des Moines wind. "You ain't seen nothing, bub," says the northwest Iowa resident, who just a few week ago was telling me about the son-in-law who lost a line of trees and a new RV to one of the especially violent squalls that seem regularly to sweep that portion of the state.

More:How can Iowa farmers combat the hurricane-force winds of a derecho? Plant shorter, more wind-resistant corn

Karen Viste-Sparkman, biologist at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge just east of Des Moines near Prairie City, also finds city dwellers' complaints about the wind amusing. She spends her days amid a wind-rippled grassland —"like an ocean," she says — where the buffalo quite literally roam. For her, it's part of an ecosystem that along with many other complex factors, including wind's good friend fire, allowed the accumulation over millennia of the layer of humus that makes Iowa farmland some of the world's most fertile.

James Patten of Waukee assembles one of the Japanese Rokkaku kites in his collection.

Upsides to the Iowa wind 

The wind also blesses the metro: The turbine depicted in profile on our license plates acknowledges that few places on Earth derive as much of their electric power from wind, a resource continually renewed by the ceaseless churning of our atmosphere.

Just starting a job, coincidentally, at MidAmerican Energy Co. is James Patten of Waukee, who has a deeply personal relationship with the wind. He's a connoisseur of kites, a hobby he discovered when, as a media producer, he was trying to find an economical way to shoot aerials in the era before you could buy a drone along with a discounted pair of pants at T.J. Maxx.

Trying to loft a camera meant he needed a sizable kite, and he became increasingly intrigued with examples of the timeless technology that now fills a substantial part of his garage. "It blows me away," he says, appropriately, of his fascination with the history of kites.

James Patten of Waukee flies a Japanese Rokkaku kite on June 27, 2021, over Ridge Pointe Pavilion near his home.

And, of course, with the wind, which he tracks on a daily basis. "I feel like a bit of meteorologist," he says, adding, "I love the wind."

He helped found a kite festival in Davenport, where he used to live, and now is a key organizer of Kites on the Green, held every May by the city of Johnston.

Patten, 45, loves handing out kite-building kits to children at the festival and helping them discover the joy that comes with watching their creations climb high, tugging against the string like a living thing.

For someone like him, the central Midwest, with its near-constant wind, is the perfect place to be. Except on this day, as I join him at Waukee's Ridge Pointe Pavilion to talk about his passion and watch him loft some of his elaborate kites.

The banners he has put up rustle in a gentle breeze, and occasionally straighten as a slightly stronger gust blows through. He gets a lightweight Japanese Rokkaku kite aloft occasionally, and manages a few times to launch his more impressive Sutton 16, which when billowed by a gust resembles a multi-colored manta ray swimming in the currents of air.

Kite enthusiast James Patten of Waukee with some of his favorites at Ridge Point Pavilion near his home on June 27, 2021.

This is that rarest of Iowa days: a bad one for kite flying. 

A thousand feet overhead, we can see clouds scudding quickly southward, indicating there's a good wind at altitude. But there's no way to get a kite up high enough to join that steady stream. Finally, after about 90 minutes, we call it a day.

I stroll toward my parked car, more disappointed for him than myself. But when I turn back to look at him, on his knees packing one of several disassembled kites under a fierce late June sun, he's smiling.

He knows, like me, that the Iowa wind won't be gone for long.

Bill Steiden

Bill Steiden is the business and investigative editor for the Register. He and his wife are having lots of fun exploring their new city, and are counting the days until they get to host their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter on their first visit to Iowa's capital in September. Contact Bill at wsteiden@registermedia.com or (515) 284-8546.