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Authorities still conducting search, rescue after tornado slams Iowa; at least 1 dead

Published: May 22, 2024, 1:01pm
3 Photos
Brian Gutmann, of Creston, Iowa, looks over tornado-damaged property, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Greenfield, Iowa.
Brian Gutmann, of Creston, Iowa, looks over tornado-damaged property, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Greenfield, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Photo Gallery

GREENFIELD, Iowa (AP) — Authorities in Iowa continued search and rescue efforts Wednesday while surviving residents picked through debris that had been their homes a day after a deadly tornado devastated the town of Greenfield and killed an undisclosed number of people there.

The tornado left a wide swath of obliterated homes, splintered trees and crumpled cars in Greenfield, a town of 2,000 about 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines. The twister also ripped apart and crumpled massive power-producing wind turbines several miles outside the town.

Greenfield resident Kimberly Ergish and her husband dug through the debris field Wednesday that used to be their home, looking for family photos and other things that could be salvaged. There wasn’t much left, she acknowledged.

“Most of it’s gone,” she said. “Most of it we can’t save. But we’re going to get what we can.”

The reality of having her home destroyed in a matter of seconds hasn’t really set in, she said.

“If it weren’t for all the bumps and bruises and the achy bones, I would think that it didn’t happen,” she said.

About 25 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of Greenfield, a woman died Tuesday when the vehicle she was driving was blown off the road during the storms near Corning, Iowa, the Adams County Sheriff’s office said. The woman’s name and age were not immediately released.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and other officials held a news conference Wednesday morning but declined to give details of the number of dead and missing in Greenfield, noting that the amount of devastation and debris had made it difficult to be sure of those numbers.

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Later Tuesday, the storms moved eastward to pummel parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers in the two states. The severe weather was expected to turn south on Wednesday, and the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for the midsection of Texas — including Dallas — until 8 p.m.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday that initial surveys confirmed the damage in Greenfield indicated at least an EF-3 tornado, which would have wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph (219 to 265 kph). But those findings are preliminary and could show a more powerful tornado following additional damage assessment over the coming days, the weather service said.

The deadly twister that hit Iowa came amid a historically bad season for tornadoes in the U.S. at a time when climate change is heightening the severity of storms around the world. April had the second highest number of tornadoes on record in the U.S.

Through Tuesday, there have been 27% more tornadoes in the country than average. The preliminary count for this year of 859 is the highest since 2017 and is significantly more than the average of 676 through May 21, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma. Nearly 700 of the tornadoes have been in April and May.

Iowa has had the most tornadoes this year with 81, followed by Texas with 74 and Kansas and Ohio each with 66. The National Weather Service said it received 23 tornado reports Tuesday, with most in Iowa — including the one in Greenfield — and one each in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The tornado that leveled Greenfield brought to life the worst case scenario in Iowa that weather forecasters had feared, AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter said.

“Debris was lifted thousands of feet in the air and ended up falling to the ground several counties away from Greenfield. That’s evidence of just how intense and deadly this tornado was,” Porter said.

The tornado appeared to have been on the ground for more than 40 miles (64 kilometers), he said, and the damage wrought by it was the worst he had seen since an EF-4 tornado — with wind speeds between 166 and 200 mph (267 and 320 kph) — hit Mayfield, Kentucky in December 2021.

A mobile research radar in the area of the Greenfield tornado detected wind speeds higher than 200 mph (320 kph), which is the threshold for an EF-5 tornado, Porter said.

“But that measurement was taken roughly 600 to 1,000 feet above the ground. It’s the severity of damage on the ground documented during storm damage surveys that dictates the strength of a tornado,” he said.

Greenfield’s 25-bed hospital was among the buildings that were damaged in the town, and at least a dozen people who were hurt were taken to facilities elsewhere. A triage center was set up for the injured at the Greenfield high school, and a Methodist Church also was being used to treat the injured.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said FEMA’s administrator would head to to Iowa on Thursday and that the White House was in touch with state and local officials.

“We are praying for those who tragically lost their lives as deadly tornados ripped through Iowa,” she said. “We are also wishing a speedy recovery to those who were injured.”

People as far as 100 miles (160 kilometers) away from Greenfield posted photos on Facebook of ripped family photos, yearbook pages and other items that were lifted into the sky by the tornado.

The tornado tore through houses on the southwest corner of Greenfield and traveled toward the hospital on the east side. Residential streets that on Monday were lined with old-growth trees and neatly-appointed ranch-style homes were, by Wednesday, a chaotic jumble of splintered and smashed remnants. Many of the homes’ basements where residents sheltered lay exposed and front yards were littered with belongings from furniture to children’s toys and Christmas decorations.

Ergish, 33, said she gathered her four kids and went into the basement when the sirens sounded “and just kind of huddled in the corner.” Seconds later, they were covered in the debris from their destroyed home.

“It was like 10 seconds of pure terror,” she said. “It felt like it lasted a lifetime.”

Dwight Lahey, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, drove from his home in suburban Des Moines back to his hometown of Greenfield to help his 98-year-old mother whose home was destroyed. She took refuge from the twister in her basement, then walked out through her destroyed garage to a nearby convenience store, Lahey said.

“I don’t know how she got through that mess,” he said. His mom was staying in a hotel, uncertain about where she’ll end up, he said.

Roseann Freeland, 67, waited until the last minute to rush with her husband to a concrete room her basement. Seconds later, her husband opened the door to the room “and you could just see daylight,” Freeland said. “I just lost it. I just totally lost it.”

The tornado also apparently took down several 250-foot (76-meter) wind turbines just southwest of the town. Some of the turbines caught fire, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Wind farms are built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes and other powerful winds.

The tornado directly hit and collapsed six MidAmerican Energy wind turbines, the utility said. Several of the turbines’ sensors registered wind speeds over 100 mph (160 kph) as the tornado approached.

“This was an unprecedented impact on our wind fleet, and we have operated wind farms since 2004,” a statement from MidAmerican read. “We have experienced only one other instance of a wind turbine collapse, which was also caused by a tornado.”

Mary Long, the owner of Long’s Market in downtown Greenfield, said she rode out the storm at her business in the community’s historic town square, which largely escaped damage.

“I could hear this roaring, like the proverbial freight train, and then it was just done,” she said.

Tuesday’s destructive weather also saw flooding and power outages in Nebraska, damage from tornadoes in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and dust storms in Illinois that forced two interstates to be closed.

The devastation in Iowa followed days of extreme weather that ravaged much of the middle section of the country, including Oklahoma and Kansas. Last week, deadly storms hit the Houston area, killing at least seven and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands.