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Multiple fatalities confirmed amid tornado damage in Iowa

Authorities said there had been multiple people killed and injured but did not give precise numbers, saying they were still determining totals.
Severe Weather Iowa
Posted at 4:20 PM, May 21, 2024

Multiple people were killed when a tornado tore through Greenfield, and left a wide swath of obliterated homes, crumpled cars and splintered trees, while outside the small Iowa town, massive wind turbines were buckled and twisted to the ground by the howling winds.

After devastating the town of 2,000 residents on Tuesday, the storms moved eastward to pummel parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to more than 130,000 customers in the two states.

Greenfield's hospital was among the buildings that were damaged in the town, which meant that at least a dozen people who were hurt had to be taken to facilities elsewhere, according to Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla.

“Sadly, we can confirm that there have been fatalities,” Dinkla said at a news conference Tuesday night, without specifying how many. “We’re still counting at this time.”

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He said he thought they had accounted for all of the town’s residents but that searches would continue if anyone were reported missing. The Adair County Health System said in a Facebook post Tuesday night that it had set up a triage center at the Greenfield high school and that people who need medical attention should go there.

The tornado destroyed much of Greenfield, which is located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines, during a day that saw multiple tornadoes, giant hail and heavy rain in several states.

Authorities announced a mandatory curfew for the town and said they would only allow residents to enter Greenfield until Wednesday morning. They also ordered media representatives to leave the city Tuesday night.

In the aftermath of the storm, mounds of broken wood from homes, branches, car parts and other debris littered lots where homes once stood. Some trees still standing were stripped of their limbs and leaves. Residents helped each other salvage furniture and other belongings that were strewn in every direction.

Rogue Paxton said he sheltered in the basement of his home when the storm moved through. He told WOI-TV he thought the house was lost but said his family got lucky.

“But everyone else is not so much, like my brother Cody, his house just got wiped,” Paxton said. “Then you see all these people out here helping each other. ... Everything’s going to be fine because we have each other, but it’s just going to be really, really rough. It is a mess."

Multiple tornadoes were reported throughout the state, and one also apparently took down several 250-foot (76-meter) wind turbines in southwest Iowa. 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 remains of a tornado-damaged wind turbine touch the ground.
The remains of a tornado-damaged wind turbine touch the ground in a field, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, near Prescott, Iowa.

Greenfield bills itself on its website as a “friendly wave as you walk” type of place with tree-lined streets — before the storm — and as the “perfect place to grow.”

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. Long said there appeared to be widespread damage on the east and south sides of town.

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

Camille Blair said the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce office where she works closed around 2 p.m. ahead of the storm.

“I can see from my house it kind of went in a straight line down the road,” she said of the tornado.

Workers search through the remains of tornado-damaged property.
Workers search through the remains of tornado-damaged property, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Greenfield, Iowa.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she planned to visit Greenfield on Wednesday morning.

“It was just a few weeks ago that tornadoes hit several other Iowa communities, and it’s hard to believe that it’s happened again,” she said in a statement. “Iowans are strong and resilient, and we will get through this together.”

Iowa had braced for severe weather after the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center gave most of the state a high chance of seeing severe thunderstorms with the potential for strong tornadoes. The storms and tornado warnings moved into Wisconsin on Tuesday evening and night.

Earlier in the day, residents to the west in Omaha, Nebraska, awoke to sirens blaring and widespread power outages as torrential rain, high winds and large hail pummeled the area. The deluge flooded basements and submerged cars. Television station KETV showed firefighters rescuing people from vehicles.

In Illinois, dust storms led authorities to shut down stretches of two interstates due to low visibility.

The storms followed days of extreme weather ravaging much of the country's middle section. Strong winds, large hail and tornadoes swept parts of Oklahoma and Kansas late Sunday, damaging homes and injuring two in Oklahoma.

Another round of storms Monday night raked Colorado and western Nebraska and saw the city of Yuma, Colorado, blanketed in hail the size of baseballs and golf balls, turning streets into rivers of water and ice.

This image taken from video provided by JJ Unger, shows hail damage to a window of vehicle.
This image taken from video provided by JJ Unger, shows hail damage to a window of vehicle, Monday night, May 20, 2024, in Yuma, Colo.

In Texas, deadly storms hit the Houston area last week, killing at least eight people. Those storms Thursday knocked out power to hundreds of thousands for days, leaving many in the dark and without air conditioning during hot and humid weather. Hurricane-force winds reduced businesses and other structures to debris and shattered glass in downtown skyscrapers.

Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service, said the system is expected to turn south Wednesday, bringing more severe weather to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and southern Missouri.

Scripps News Omaha spoke with some residents in the northern part of the city where flooding rose multiple feet inside first-floor apartments.

While officials had not confirmed tornadoes in the area, there were confirmed reports of hurricane-force winds, said National Weather Service meteorologist Becky Kern.

"We have a 90 mph gust measured at Columbus," Kern said. Columbus is about 87 miles west of Omaha.