One Dead as Unusual Midwest Storm Brings Hurricane-Force Winds

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -
Debris from nearby farm fields swirls over Highway 400 between Mullinville, Kans., and Dodge City on Wednesday. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

One person has died as a powerful storm system swept across the Great Plains and Midwest amid unseasonably warm temperatures, bringing hurricane-force wind gusts and spawning reported tornadoes in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota in a weather outbreak experts described as extremely unusual for December.

A semitrailer struck by high winds rolled onto its side on southbound U.S. Highway 151 in eastern Iowa on Wednesday evening as severe weather moved through the area, killing the driver, the Iowa State Patrol said.

The storm was shifting north of the Great Lakes into Canada on Thursday, with high winds, snow and hazardous conditions continuing in the upper Great Lakes region, the National Weather Service said. More than 400,000 homes and businesses were without electricity Thursday morning in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Kansas, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports.

A tornado was reported in southern Minnesota on Wednesday and, if confirmed, would be the state’s first ever in December. The small community of Hartland, Minnesota, might have been the hardest hit, with a reported 35 to 40 homes sustaining minor damage while a few businesses were severely damaged, said county Emergency Management Director Rich Hall. Several barns were down and roofs were blown off some sheds, he added.

The winds knocked down trees, tree limbs and nearly 150 power lines in northern and western Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In the western Michigan village of Fruitport, high winds peeled back a portion of Edgewood Elementary School’s roof, leading officials to close all district schools Thursday.

There were more than 20 tornado reports Wednesday in the Plains states, scattered through eastern Nebraska and Iowa, based on preliminary reports to the Storm Prediction Center. The day also saw the most reports of hurricane-force wind gusts — 75 mph (120 kph) or higher — of any day since 2004, the center said.

“To have this number of damaging wind storms at one time would be unusual anytime of year,” said Brian Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska. “But to have this happen in December is really abnormal.”

The system came on the heels of devastating tornadoes last weekend that cut a path through states including Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people.

On Wednesday, there were at least 59 reports of hurricane-force wind gusts, which exceeded the 53 recorded on Aug. 10, 2020, when a rare derecho wind storm struck Iowa, the Storm Prediction Center said. The destruction on Wednesday, however, was far less severe than what Iowa saw from the 2020 derecho, which caused billions of dollars of damage.

That dust and smoke from various wildfires in Kansas was carried north by the storm and concentrated over parts of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa that led to a dramatic drop in air quality in those areas late Wednesday and a recommendation from the weather service for people to stay indoors. The smell of smoke from the fires also spawned a glut of calls to already-taxed emergency dispatchers in Omaha and other communities from people reporting the smell of smoke.

The National Weather Service had issued a high wind warning for an area stretching from New Mexico to upper Michigan, including Wisconsin and Illinois. Gusts topping 80 mph (129 kph) were recorded in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas. The weather service said an automated observation site in Lamar, Colorado, recorded a gust of 107 mph (172 kph) Wednesday morning. Wind gusts of 100 mph were reported in Russell, Kansas.