At Least 5 Dead as Midwest Rocked by Hurricane-Force Winds

OMAHA, Neb.—At least five people died as a powerful and extremely unusual storm system swept across the Great Plains and Midwest amid unseasonably warm temperatures, spawning hurricane-force winds and possible tornadoes in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota.

In southeastern Minnesota, Olmsted County Sheriff’s Lt. Lee Rossman said a 65-year-old man was killed Wednesday night when a 40-foot tree blew onto him outside his home. In southwestern Kansas, blinding dust kicked up by the storms Wednesday led to two separate crashes that killed three people, Kansas Highway Patrol trooper Mike Racy said. And in eastern Iowa, a semitrailer was struck by high winds and rolled onto its side Wednesday evening, killing the driver, the Iowa State Patrol confirmed.

The storm shifted 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 190,000 homes and businesses remained without electricity Thursday afternoon 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, it would be the state’s first on record in December. The small community of Hartland, Minnesota, might have been the hardest hit, with a reported 35 to 40 homes sustaining minor damage and a few businesses severely damaged, county Emergency Management Director Rich Hall said.

Losses also included livestock. Dozens of cows were electrocuted at a dairy farm after a power pole landed on a milking barn in Newaygo County, in western Michigan. Tim Butler said his workers at the dairy survived the event, but at least 70 cows died. Dozens survived, but many were “hurt bad,” Butler said.

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 mostly through eastern Nebraska and Iowa, based on preliminary reports to the Storm Prediction Center. The storm system led to the most reports of hurricane-force wind gusts—75 mph or higher—on any day in the United States 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 governors of Kansas and Iowa declared states of emergency.

Grain bins were blown away
The Hodgeman County Undersheriff confirmed these grain bins were blown away from a nearby farm into cornfield across Hwy 283 in Jetmore, Kan., on Dec. 15, 2021. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

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 regionwide, 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 from last year’s derecho, which caused billions of dollars of damage.

The winds also whipped up dust that reduced visibility to zero in parts of Kansas and caused at least four semitrailers to blow over, leading officials to temporarily close much of Interstate 70, as well as all state highways in nine northwestern Kansas counties.

Kansas deployed helicopters and other firefighting equipment to help smother at least a dozen wind-fueled wildfires in western and central counties, officials said Thursday.

That dust and smoke was carried north by the storm and concentrated over parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, causing a dramatic drop in air quality in those areas late Wednesday. That spawned a glut of calls to already-taxed emergency dispatchers from people reporting the smell of smoke.

The system blew into the Plains from Colorado, sending gale-force winds across a swath from New Mexico to Minnesota, Wisconsin and upper Michigan. The weather service recorded a gust of 107 mph Wednesday morning at Lamar, Colorado, and gusts of 100 mph in Russell, Kansas.