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Search and rescue efforts continue after tornado slams Iowa, killing at least 1 person

A man sorts through the remains of a home damaged by a tornado on Tuesday in Greenfield, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
A man sorts through the remains of a home damaged by a tornado on Tuesday in Greenfield, Iowa.

GREENFIELD, Iowa — Authorities in Iowa were continuing search and rescue efforts Wednesday, a day after a deadly tornado slammed the state, devastating the town of Greenfield and killing an undisclosed number of people there.

About 25 miles 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.

In Greenfield, a town of 2,000 about 55 miles southwest of Des Moines, the tornado left a wide swath of obliterated homes and crumpled cars and had earlier ripped apart and crumpled massive power-producing wind turbines.

"It's horrific," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday at a news conference just outside the devastated town. "It's hard to describe."

She and other officials 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.

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 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 deadly tornado appeared to have been on the ground for more than 40 miles, 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 — hit Mayfield, Kentucky in December 2021.

A mobile research radar in the area of the Greenfield tornado detected wind speeds higher than 200 mph, 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 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, Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla said Tuesday night. A triage center was set up for the injured at the Greenfield high school. The Adair County Health Department reported that a Methodist Church also was being used to treat the injured.

On Facebook, people as far as 100 miles away from Greenfield posted photos of ripped family photos, check stubs, damp yearbook pages and other items that were lifted into the sky by the Greenfield tornado.

In Wisconsin, the weather service's Green Bay office dispatched a staffer Wednesday morning to survey storm damage near the village of Unity in western Marathon County after law enforcement received a report from the public about a tornado on the ground about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday in that community about 55 miles east of Eau Claire, said meteorologist Roy Eckberg. He said staffers would also be visiting Outagamie County near the city of Kaukauna, some 20 miles southwest of Green Bay, to investigate significant wind damage there.

Weather service staff would also be assessing storm damage Wednesday in southeastern Minnesota after radar indicated that a tornado touched down Tuesday night in Winona County, said Kate Abbott, a meteorologist with the agency's La Crosse, Wisconsin, office.

In the aftermath of the Greenfield tornado, 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."

A tornado also apparently took down several 250-foot 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.

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.

Iowa had braced for severe weather after the weather service's Storm Prediction Center gave most of the state a high chance of seeing severe thunderstorms with the potential for strong tornadoes. 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 that have ravaged much of the middle section of the country. 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.

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