Iowa : Safety by City
- Arnolds Park
- Cedar Falls
- Cedar Rapids
- Clear Lake
- Council Bluffs
- Des Moines
- Fort Dodge
- Fort Madison
- Iowa City
- Mason City
- North Liberty
- Pleasant Hill
- Polk City
- Sioux City
- Spirit Lake
- Storm Lake
- The Amana Colonies
- West Des Moines
Many people had never heard of Ottumwa, Iowa until the documentary Queen of Meth came out on streaming platforms in 2021.
It told the story of actor Tom Arnold’s sister who was once running a lucrative drug trade in this small town of 25,000 people.
Ottumwa has changed a lot in the past 30 years and Arnold’s sister paid her penance in prison and now lives in Ohio.
This city is also known as the “Video Game Capital of the World” due to the company Twin Galaxies.
The company doesn’t make video games but serves as a social platform for scorekeeping and player interaction.
Ottumwa hosted many arcade game competitions, long before we had the fancy graphics of today’s video games.
The stories like these are what really make Iowa so unique.
Each small town, no matter how small, has its own hidden history, for better and worse.
The small towns are the legs that Iowa stands on.
Ottumwa is 90 minutes southeast of Des Moines.
Another great part about many Iowa towns is that they were settled on a river, which widens the landscape of activities to do in the modern age.
This isn’t a fancy city.
It’s as simple as a Midwestern town can get.
Between the Dollar General stores and strip malls, there’s a lot to explore if you know where to look.
Warnings & Dangers in Ottumwa
OVERALL RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk here due to high crime rates. You might even ask "Ottumwat is going on here?" There's one crime category that I had to verify through three sources because it was so high.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
1015 Transit is the public transportation service here, and you can also call them for a ride, eliminating the need for a taxi or rideshare during operating hours. Having a car is the best plan, but the personalized service of the bus system is unique.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk here due to the fact that theft rates are so high. The rate per 100,000 people is 44% higher than the national average. It's not just your wallet you need to hold onto. Lock the car and hotel room doors and windows. If you're camping, leave nothing in plain sight.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : MEDIUM
Ottumwa, like all of Iowa, has medium risks of tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, hail storms, snow/ice storms, and extreme temperatures. The Des Moines River flowing through the center of town adds a flooding risk. If you aren't used to these risks, please study the emergency management plan. It's easy for me, as a Midwestern woman, to tell you "It's not that big of a deal" because I've just gotten used to knowing the safe place when the tornado sirens go off and can add chains to my tires in record time. It took a lifetime of learning for me to get to this point.
MUGGING RISK : MEDIUM
The one anomaly in the crime data is the robbery rate, which is half the national average. There were 11 robberies reported in 2021. However, the way crime data is calculated, a robbery that escalates into an aggravated assault will be marked as only aggravated assault. The FBI is changing those rules moving forward, but that could explain why the robbery rate is so low and the assault rate is so high. I've gotta put this at a medium risk because it's very important to be aware of your surroundings and the crime risks that exist here.
TERRORISM RISK : LOW
There's a low risk in this small Iowa town. Des Moines would be the closest hard target. The real bad people to worry about are the criminals within the city.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
The Better Business Bureau website for scams happening in Ottumwa is empty. However, with more investigation, I found only the basic phone scams that target residents. There's a low risk of a tourist-focused scam but keep your guard up.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk for women traveling here. I would give that rating based on just one crime category, even if the other categories weren't so high. The sexual assault rate is FIVE TIMES the national average here. There were 44 rapes in 2021 in a town of 25,000 people. Please use caution when visiting here. Don't be out after dark walking around, and never go to a private place with someone you have just met.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The 2022 Consumer Confidence Report from Ottumwa Water & Hydro shows no violations and all water meets or exceeds requirements. There's a low risk, but double-check that risk if there is any flooding happening during your visit.
Safest Places to Visit in Ottumwa
I have not painted the best picture of Ottumwa thus far in this article.
This isn’t a tourist brochure, it’s a reality check.
That said, there are many wonderful things to do here as long as you’re using common sense and personal safety practices.
Famous Iowa artist Grant Wood has a footprint here, and it might take you a second to recognize the American Gothic House and Center, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
The house used in Wood’s famous “American Gothic” photo of a man holding a pitchfork and his somber-faced wife is standing in front of the house that is located in Ottumwa.
There are limited and erratic hours for this tourist attraction throughout the seasons, so check before you go to make sure it’s open.
The Antique Airplane Association’s Air Power Museum is located on 30 acres of land and is open every day of the week.
There is no admission, but donations are encouraged.
The museum is filled with antique airplanes and airplane parts to satisfy the intrigue of aviation fans.
Train enthusiasts will love visiting Railroad Park, right along the banks of the Des Moines River.
There are several historical markers here and a lot to learn about the history of railroads throughout Iowa.
Beach Ottumwa is a great spot for summer tourists.
It’s a water park on the banks of the Des Moines River, right in the center of the city.
There’s a wave pool, numerous water slides, and a pool designed for competitive swimmers.
While you’re in that area, check out Freedom Rock just to the southeast.
Every county in Iowa has a Freedom Rock with a unique design painted on a large rock.
All of the rocks celebrate and honor America and the military members who serve it.
The Iowa Heartland History Connection is a history museum dating back to the time when Native Americans roamed this land through the development of the city into modern-day amenities.
Stop by the gift shops for Iowa-made products and art.
Gray Eagle Wildlife Preserve is on the southern edge of the city.
This area is a wetland region, subject to the water levels of the river.
It’s going to be muddy, so bring waterproof boots for this visit.
There are a lot of birds to see here too, so bring binoculars.
This is also a great fishing spot in Ottumwa.
On the exact opposite northern edge of town, you’ll find Rock Bluff Park.
This area is designed for fishing and hunting, but be sure to know the rules of hunting here and if you aren’t a hunter, avoid the west side of the park during hunting season.
Places to Avoid in Ottumwa
The east and southeastern sides of the city have the highest crime, with general guidance to “avoid the southeast part of town” if you can.
You aren’t in imminent danger there, but it’s a place more likely to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
West of Court Street starts getting you into safe parts of town, with the far west and north sides being very safe.
This is a blue-collar town with an average income of $42,000 a year.
Aside from the tourist attractions, there aren’t those historic neighborhoods to drive through.
Stay on the main roads and in well-lit areas.
18% of the people here live in poverty, so there’s a chance you’ll get panhandled while you’re there.
Ottumwa is a very conservative town where you’ll likely see President Trump signs still standing.
It’s wise to not engage in political arguments here, especially if you lean liberal.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Ottumwa
- Putting aside the notoriety of the Queen of Meth, this is an area that is being hit hard by the illegal drug trade. Most small towns in Iowa are feeling the pinch of this problem. There’s a “Report of Drugs in the Midwest” on the Ottumwa police department’s website to better educate you on this problem and what’s being done.
- Being a tourist in a town like this gives a different perspective of suspicious activity that residents might have grown numb to. It’s important to report anything suspicious that you see to the police. The non-emergency line is (641) 683-0661.
- Hunters, listen up. The city does allow bow hunting within the city limits under very specific circumstances. There’s a link on the police department’s website that details all the requirements. It’s important to check this out early because there are some tests to take before you are even considered for taking part in the hunt. For hunting outside of the city limits, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is your place to visit to learn about requirements and purchase a license online.
- Fishing is also going to require an Iowa non-resident license. This is for any fishing in the city, county, or state. The DNR details those requirements and also tells you the best places and times to find the fish of your choice.
- Ottumwa’s roads can be torn up by fluctuations in temperatures throughout the year and the freezing and thawing of ice in the winter. If you notice a pothole, report it to public works at 641-684-2180. There is a form on the city’s website where you can report a concern too.
- Before you visit Beach Ottumwa, read the rules page of the attraction’s website. There are very specific things like you can’t wear thong bikinis, smoke inside the park, or bring your own food in. The indoor pool here is open year-round, with the outdoor water park being open only in the summer. It will close if the temperature falls below 70°(F) or if there is severe weather heading toward Ottumwa.
- If you are traveling with pets, it’s important to know that Ottumwa has a pit bull and bull terror dog ban. You can’t “keep, shelter, or harbor” them and face a $100 fine if you do so. The city council has gone back and forth on this topic in recent years, but as of mid-2022, the ban stands.
- For those visiting Ottumwa in winter, you should become familiar with what a “snow emergency” means. it sounds scarier than it is, but the snow emergency allows city leaders to restrict parking on certain streets so snowplows can make the roads safe for everyone. It’s too complicated to explain quickly here, but review the “Public Works” section of the city’s website to learn more. Otherwise, just don’t park on the street anywhere during a snow storm and you’ll be fine. Use parking garages or lots instead.
- Every community in Iowa has sirens when severe weather is approaching, but each community’s sirens mean something different. For example, some cities will only sound sirens when there is a tornado warning in that city or county. In Ottumwa, the sirens will sound if there is a tornado warning, winds in excess of 70 miles per hour, or hail that is at least golf-ball sized.
- Sign up for Alert Iowa notifications on your mobile device so you can get immediate information about severe weather risks. It’s important if there are severe thunderstorm warnings or tornado warnings to get to a safe place and stay away from windows. Search for “Iowa Derecho” on YouTube to see why this is so important.
So... How Safe Is Ottumwa Really?
Ottumwa is three times higher than the national and state average in many of its crime categories.
The challenge of writing an article like this is that there is a different level of safety advice for someone looking to move to Ottumwa and someone just visiting.
The crime data released doesn’t look good at face value.
There are also the unknowns of “how many incidents were random crimes and how many were domestic issues?”
There were many crime categories that were down from 2020, but comparing 2021 to 2020 is almost like apples and oranges, because of the lockdowns the pandemic caused.
It’s normal for crime categories to go up after the pandemic, due to the lack of activity and social gatherings, but the pandemic also caused more mental health issues which led to more crime.
I think we should look at any drop in crime rates as positive.
Concerning areas include:
- Rape: There was twice the number of rapes in 2021 than there were in 2020.
- Fraud: This category was up 88% year-to-year.
- Murder: There were three murders in 2021 compared to none in 2020
There aren’t reports of random acts of violence dominating the headlines in Ottumwa.
The crime rate is subjective, depending on where you are coming from.
I’m from St. Louis, for example, which is one of the “most dangerous” cities in the country.
I know where to go that’s safe and what areas to avoid.
I never feel unsafe, but I also never let my guard down.
That’s sage advance for visiting anywhere.
I almost prefer to tell you about the medium risks in Iowa’s small towns, because it helps keep your guard up.
Safe towns can give a sense of safety and allow people to throw caution to the wind.
No matter what crime data says, you should always put your personal and property safety first.
How Does Ottumwa Compare?
- Visas - Only people visiting from outside the U.S. will need a visa. You'll have to show your visa and passport to get through Customs at the airport, but you won't need your visa during your travels between Iowa's cities.
- Currency - You can only use the U.S. Dollar here. You should exchange currency at the airport in case smaller towns don't have that option. Try to carry as little cash as necessary, and it's wise to hide it in a hidden jacket pocket or in your sock. Purchase as much as you can with one credit card so you can track purchases and signal any potential fraud.
- Weather - The bitter cold winters of Iowa don't stop residents from going outside, so be sure to layer up in warm clothing with gloves and a hat on top of a thick coat and boots. You'll need light fabrics in the summer because it gets hot and humid here. Bring bug spray. I live in the Midwest and I walked outside the other night - on my patio - to take some storm photos and I was bitten by no less than 10 mosquitos in 10 minutes. I know better, but I share my embarrassing story so you can avoid the irritating marks of a mosquito bite.
- Airports - The closest airport is going to be in Des Moines, and that's about a 90-minute drive. If there are bad road conditions in the winter, allow yourself plenty of time to get there.
- Travel Insurance - Travel insurance is a great idea for a state that gets so much wild weather. Sometimes flights are delayed for a few minutes as a storm rolls through, other times it can be hours while runways are plowed and planes de-iced. Protect your trip with travel insurance so you don't lose money before you even get to Ottumwa, Iowa.
Ottumwa Weather Averages (Temperatures)
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