Omaha, Neb. – At least five people died in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota amid unseasonably warm temperatures, hurricane-force winds and potential tornadoes as a powerful and extremely unusual storm system swept across the Great Plains and the Midwest.
In southeastern Minnesota, Olmsted County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Lee Rossman said a 65-year-old man died Wednesday night after a 40-foot tree blew up outside his home. In southwestern Kansas, dust from a tornado killed three people in two separate accidents on Wednesday, Kansas Highway Patrol soldier Mike Resey said. And in eastern Iowa, a semitrailer was hit by strong winds and rolled over on its side on Wednesday evening, killing the driver, the Iowa State Patrol confirmed.
The National Weather Service said the storm moved north of the Great Lakes into Canada on Thursday, with strong winds, snow and hazardous conditions continuing in the upper Great Lakes region. More than 190,000 homes and businesses were out of power on 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, would be the state’s first recorded in December. County Emergency Management Director Rich Hall said the small community of Heartland, Minnesota, may be the hardest hit, with 35 to 40 homes with minor damage and some businesses with severe damage.
The loss also includes livestock. Dozens of cows at a dairy farm were electrocuted after an electric pole fell on a milking barn in western Michigan’s Newago County. Tim Butler said his workers at the dairy survived the incident, but at least 70 cows died. Dozens survived, but many were “severely hurt”, Butler said.
A devastating weather system developed in the plains and northern states amid unprecedented heat for December. In this, the temperature in southwestern Wisconsin rose to 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday evening. Weather Company historian Chris Burt compared the heat to a “warm July evening”.
“I can say with some confidence that this event (heat and tornadoes) is the most (if not the most) anomalous weather event on record for the Upper Midwest,” Burt wrote in a Facebook post.
Winds toppled trees, tree trunks and about 150 power lines in the Lower Peninsula of northern and western Michigan. In the western Michigan village of Fruitport, strong winds stripped a portion of the roof of Edgewood Elementary School, prompting officials to close all district schools on Thursday.
Based on preliminary reports from the Hurricane Prediction Center, there were more than 20 tornado reports Wednesday in the plains states, mostly scattered across eastern Nebraska and Iowa. The center said the hurricane system reported the most hurricane-force wind gusts of 75 mph or more on any day in the US since 2004.
“A wind storm so damaging at one time would be unusual at any time of year,” said Brian Barzenbrook, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Canyon, Nebraska. “But it’s really unusual for this to happen in December.”
The governors of Kansas and Iowa declared a state of emergency.
The system came on the heels of a devastating tornado last weekend that cut a path through states including Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky, killing more than 85 people.
The Storm Prediction Center said that on Wednesday, there were at least 59 reports of hurricane-force wind gusts across the region, up from 53 recorded on August 10, 2020, when a rare derecho wind storm struck Iowa Was. However, Wednesday’s devastation was much less severe than last year’s derecho, causing billions of dollars in damage.
Winds also brought dust that reduced visibility to zero in parts of Kansas and flew at least four semitrailers, causing officials to temporarily close most of Interstate 70, as well as nine northwestern Kansas counties. All state highways were also closed.
Kansas deployed helicopters and other fire-fighting equipment to help douse at least a dozen wind-driven wildfires in western and central counties, officials said Thursday.
That dust and smoke was carried northward by the storm and concentrated over parts of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, causing a dramatic drop in air quality in those areas late Wednesday. This sparked a flurry of calls from people reporting the smell of smoke to already taxed emergency dispatchers.
The system blew across the plains from Colorado, sending gale-force winds in a force from New Mexico to Minnesota, Wisconsin and upper Michigan. The Weather Service recorded gusts of 107 mph in Lamar, Colorado, and 100 mph in Russell, Kansas, on Wednesday morning.
Scientists say that extreme weather events and warmer temperatures are more likely to accompany anthropogenic climate change. However, scientifically attributing a hurricane system to global warming requires specific analyzes and computer simulations that are time consuming, not performed and sometimes show no clear connection.
“I think we should stop questioning whether this phenomenon was caused by climate change,” said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University. “We need to ask, ‘To what extent did climate change play a role, and how likely was this event to have occurred in the absence of climate change?
The unusually warm temperature on Wednesday was due to record high sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which would not have happened without global warming, said Yale Climate Connections meteorologist Jeff Masters, who cofounded Weather Underground.
Associated Press writer Jill Bled in Little Rock, Arkansas; Ken Miller in Oklahoma City; Terry Wallace in Dallas; Seth Borenstein in Washington DC; Jim Anderson in Denver and Grant Schulte in Omaha, Nebraska contributed to this report.