Advertisement

Deadly outburst of extreme weather blitzes center of U.S.

By Allison Finch, AccuWeather, Accuweather.com

All the ingredients for severe weather came together with fatal effects on Wednesday as a complex atmospheric setup churned up dust storms and knocked out power across multiple states throughout the middle of the United States.

Officials blamed at least one fatality in Iowa on the extraordinarily high winds, and as the weather system charged eastward, it brought severe weather to parts of the Midwest into the evening and triggered Minnesota's first-ever December tornado.

Advertisement

As Wednesday began, a snow squall line with heavy wind gusts moved its way across the rocky mountains around 5 a.m. Many areas along the Interstate 70 corridor in the Colorado rockies experienced whiteout conditions as the storm moved from Glenwood Springs to Idaho Springs.

Snow squalls were also reported in Wyoming and New Mexico throughout the morning.

RELATED New smart roof coating may provide year-round energy savings, study finds

The cold front and rain/snow squall could be seen in the form of an ominous cloud as it left the mountains and approached the Colorado foothills.

Whiteout conditions from the snow squall as it impacted near the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado.
Advertisement

As the storm moved through Eastern Colorado and Kansas in the afternoon, high winds and dry conditions picked up dust as it moved eastward.

Blowing dust caused several roads to be closed across Kansas. A semi was blown over due to the winds on I-70 between Ellis and WaKeeney.

RELATED Full 'Cold Moon' to illuminate weekend before Christmas

The Kansas Highway Patrol reported 73 total crashes on Wednesday. Of those, 20 resulted in injury and two were fatal. One of the serious injuries occurred after high winds lifted and flipped an empty tractor-trailer over on U.S. Highway 75, according to KSN.

KDOT closed a 160 mile stretch of Interstate 70 due to the dust, spanning from Kanorado to Hays. The closure eventually expanded an additional 93 miles to Salina as low visibility continued to create dangerous driving conditions across the state.

I-70 from Kanorado to Salina remained closed for about 5 hours.

RELATED Biden pledges to pay all costs for first 30 days of Kentucky damage clean-up

The dust from Colorado and Kansas was transported so far away, it was reported to be found in Duluth, Minn.

The dry conditions mixed with the windy weather caused a fire in Russell County, Kan., to ignite. The fire spread at least 150 square miles and destroyed at least 10 homes. At least one severe injury was reported. A visible burn scar is visible in both counties. Russell, Kan., reported a wind gust of 100 mph on Wednesday.

Advertisement

According to reports from the NWS, high winds damaged a parked aircraft at Santa Fe Airport, and a downed radio tower took out power lines for the northern half of the town of Taos, N.M.

A trooper with the Missouri State Highway Patrol told a local news station that a driver was ejected when strong winds tossed his box truck off the highway. He was flown to a nearby hospital with serious injuries.

Power outages across the central United States, Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region topped 350,000 as of Thursday afternoon.

Power Outages 12/16

Record high temperatures set the stage for wild weather across the middle of the nation on Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday, Des Moines, Iowa, demolished its high-temperature record for Dec. 15 when the mercury soared into the mid-70s. Many other cities across the central U.S. tied or broke their high-temperature record for the day.

Angeline noted that temperatures had dropped drastically after the storm rolled through Iowa, with temperatures in the mid-50s after midday temperatures were in the mid-70s, providing "springlike" weather in the middle of December.

Tornado watches were issued from northeastern Kansas to southern Minnesota as severe thunderstorms organized over the region.

Advertisement

The first severe thunderstorm warning was issued just before 1 p.m. for North Central Kansas and South Central Nebraska.

The severe storms worked its way through eastern Nebraska and eventually impacted several other states in the midwest as it moved northeast.

Given the remarkably high wind gusts the storms kicked up, in excess of 100 mph in several places, and the wide area the storms covered on Wednesday, there was conjecture among meteorologists that a rare derecho had occurred.

NOAA's GOES-East weather satellite captured this image of the storm system over the central U.S. on Wednesday afternoon shortly before sunset.

"There is no official declaration that happens, but it meets the criteria for a derecho," Elizabeth Leitman, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, said. The storm traveled roughly 660 miles in 10-and-a-half hours.

By definition, a derecho has occurred if wind damage from showers and thunderstorms occurs across a swath of more than 240 miles and includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph or greater along most of its length, according to the NWS.

Five states clocked dangerous wind gusts of up to 107 mph on Wednesday afternoon as the fierce storm continued to move eastward. "[This] event is causing hurricane wind gusts over an area in the U.S. larger than any individual hurricane impact this season," said Dan DePodwin, AccuWeather director of forecast operations.

Advertisement

A total of 72 tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings were issued in Iowa on Wednesday. This is the most Iowa has seen in a single day since March 6, 2017, according to ABC Des Moines.

AccuWeather national reporters Jillian Angeline and Tony Laubach were some of the first people on the scene when one driver in despair flagged down them down. His partner was injured in one of the rolled-over tractor-trailers.

"You know, as storm chasers, we're always kind of the first ones there, and above being a storm chaser, above being a journalist, we're humans," said Laubach. "We saw him flag us down on the side of the interstate. We helped get the guy out of the truck ... I tended to his injuries till the paramedics showed up, and they were able to get him into the ambulance and get him taken care of."

Ali Kulmiye, a truck driver, told Angeline that his co-driver told him to "stop, stop the car, but I said, I can't. I can't stop the car. The car doesn't stop. The wind taking it everywhere."

Advertisement

Just after 10 p.m. CST, Dec. 15, 2021, set the record for the highest number of hurricane-force wind gusts, meaning wind gusts 75 mph or higher, in a single day. A total of 55 reports were recorded, according to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center. This broke the previous record of 53 such gusts on Aug. 10, 2020.

NOAA's Storm Prediction Center tallied just under two dozen tornado reports and about 500 wind reports across the central U.S. on Wednesday. Winds ripped shingles off homes in several locations.

"These storms are happening in a place where tornadoes and severe weather are unprecedented in mid-December," AccuWeather chief meteorologist Jonathan Porter said. He reminded people to be weather-ready and take action when warnings were issued for their community.

Several EF-2 tornadoes have been confirmed around Iowa from Wednesday nights storm. One of the EF-2 tornadoes was confirmed southwest of Bayard, Iowa and traveled 26.7 miles towards Greene, Iowa. Another EF-2 tornado traveled 26.1 miles, starting southwest of Atlantic, Iowa and ending between Exira and Hamlin, Iowa.

As the storm system barreled to the east, parts of the Upper Midwest were hit by severe weather including southern Minnesota. On Thursday afternoon, two tornadoes were confirmed in Minnesota. An EF-0 tornado was confirmed in Winona County, Minn. This was the first-ever tornado confirmed in Minnesota during the month of December.

Advertisement

Another tornado was confirmed in Hartland, Minn., which caused significant damage to a bank and several homes. In Wisconsin, an EF-2 tornado was confirmed in Clark County.

The storm even managed to unleash some large hail in places, according to reports.

Softball-sized hail was reportedly measured near Emporia, Kansas, one of the most impressive storm reports of the day. Hailstones this large can reach speeds of a major league fastball -- 100 mph -- causing significant damage to property and cause major injury.

According to AccuWeather forecasters, cooler and less breezy conditions will sweep into the regions that were hardest hit during Wednesday's storm.

Latest Headlines

Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us

Advertisement