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At least 5 dead after tornadoes, storms blast through Great Plains and Midwest

Iowa and Minnesota saw their first December tornadoes while high winds slammed Colorado, with some gusts reaching 107mph, on Dec. 15. (Video: The Washington Post)

At least five people are dead after a powerful storm system of more than 20 tornadoes swept through the central United States on Wednesday with high winds that spread wildfires and knocked down power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers without electricity.

Most of the fatalities occurred in vehicle crashes. One person driving a truck in Iowa died when the vehicle was hit by a strong gust of wind, rolling it over and into a ditch, according to a state patrol crash report. Three people in Kansas died in car crashes, while a man in Minnesota died when a 40-foot tree fell on him, according to officials.

Unprecedented Midwest wind storm caps 2021’s siege of extreme weather

The National Weather Service confirmed that at least 21 tornadoes touched down in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. At least 13 of those touched down in Iowa, officials said Thursday.

The unusual weather appeared to be fueled by record-breaking warm temperatures coupled with a jet stream that meteorologist Jeff Masters said took on a “very unusually contorted pattern.” It also came just days after devastating tornadoes in nine states left dozens dead.

The National Weather Service reported a tornado near Rochester in southeastern Minnesota, the state’s first on record in December. Several tornadoes reported in western and central Iowa also were December firsts for those parts of the state. And a record was set Wednesday for the most hurricane-force winds of 75 mph or higher in a single day since 2004, according to the Weather Service.

In all, more than 36 million people in an area between New Mexico and Michigan were under high-wind warnings, as gusts of up to 100 mph sent roofs flying and toppled tractor-trailers on highways from Colorado to Iowa.

“I’ve been a meteorologist for 40 years, and I’ve seen things that have floored me and boggled my mind,” said Masters, an extreme-weather expert at Yale Climate Connections and a founder of Weather Underground. “But I would have never thought I would see extremity of the weather I saw last night. The winds were unbelievable.”

More than 340,000 customers were without power in Wisconsin and Michigan as of Thursday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages. About 37,000 were without power in Iowa, nearly 29,000 in Kansas and thousands in Illinois, Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Minnesota. MidAmerican Energy, which serves parts of Iowa, said that “because of the extensive damage,” restoring power could take as many as three days.

A lack of electricity in winter in those states normally risks leaving people without heat in freezing conditions, but cities across the Midwest reported record highs Wednesday. Parts of Iowa reached temperatures as high as 74, with the Chicago region nearing 70 the week before Christmas.

High winds in Kansas kicked up dust storms that caused low visibility, prompting the Kansas Department of Transportation to shut down major highways in the western part of the state.

Dry, windy conditions also fueled wildfires in Kansas, forcing evacuations. The Weather Service said late Wednesday that a wildfire in Russell County, Kan., was still burning. Parts of Kansas, Missouri and Colorado had the worst air quality in the country Wednesday evening, with Brownell, Kan., recording a “very unhealthy” air quality index of 237, far higher than levels earlier in the week. And in Nebraska, west of the cold front igniting the storms, blizzard conditions developed.

The sweeping storm system Wednesday came on the heels of the more vicious string of tornadoes that struck parts of the Midwest and South this past weekend, leaving at least 88 people dead and destroying thousands of homes and other structures.

Studying and determining the weather systems that triggered Wednesday’s devastating storms is likely to take months, but meteorologists told The Washington Post that a combination of factors, including unusually warm weather, were likely to blame.

A senior research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory said he wouldn’t expect the recent stretch of devastating December weather to become the new normal in the United States — calling the spate of extreme storms “somewhat freakish.”

“We don’t put out tornado warnings very often in places where snow is still on the ground,” said the researcher, Harold Brooks. “It took a lot of stuff, and weeks of buildup, for this to happen.”

Part of what made Wednesday’s anomalous storms so devastating is that they were continuing to mature and strengthen as they were battering the middle part of the country, said Victor Gensini, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University who specializes in extreme weather and climate.

Amid a stretch of destruction across multiple states in the past week, Gensini said a significant argument could be made that global warming is helping enhance and increase the likelihood of damaging storms. He compared the possible effect of global warming on the climate to how steroids affected Major League Baseball decades ago.

“When you started looking at the number of home runs in baseball, you saw that steroids had an effect. And I think the same thing is happening here with the changing climate and these events,” Gensini said. “As more of these extremes are happening, you ask whether they would have been as intense or impressive without climate change? Those are things we don’t know right now, but we’re in a climate state where we allow these things to be more probable.”

Masters echoed Gensini, saying that when the research is done on Wednesday’s storms, “We’ll find that an event like last night would have been virtually impossible without human-caused global warming.”

The storms also wreaked havoc at airports. “For their safety,” Federal Aviation Administration employees were evacuated from an air traffic control tower at Kansas City International Airport, causing delays and diverting flights, the airport said. Runways reopened after FAA staffers returned to the tower and the airfield was checked for debris.

There were hundreds of delays and canceled flights at Denver International Airport on Wednesday, and several small planes that were parked were damaged at Santa Fe Regional Airport in New Mexico. A Christmas tree was toppled in the town square of a Denver suburb.

As millions of Americans’ lives have been upended by storms in the past week, meteorologists are warning many to take the weather seriously into account before Christmas.

“You’re talking about two historic weather events happening less than a week of each other,” Gensini said. “It’s becoming clear that these events certainly will go down as top-10 weather events of not just the entire year but also top-10 weather events for the entire decade. It’s been a very, very impressive stretch.”

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