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WEATHER ALERT: Severe storms expected late this afternoon and evening

Tornado devastates Iowa town, killing multiple people as powerful storms rip through Midwest

tornado damage in Iowa
Damage is seen after a tornado moved through Greenfield, Iowa, Tuesday, May 21, 2024.

GREENFIELD, Iowa — Multiple people died Tuesday and at least a dozen were injured when a powerful tornado tore through a small Iowa town, carving a bleak landscape of destroyed homes and businesses, shredded trees, smashed cars, and widely strewn debris.

tornado in Iowa
IPM meteorologist Andrew Pritchard took a picture of a large, wedge tornado in Iowa on May 21, 2024. Andrew Pritchard/IPM News

The tornado destroyed much of Greenfield, a town of about 2,000 around 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines, during a day that saw multiple tornadoes, giant hail and heavy rain in several states.

“We do have confirmed fatalities,” Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla said at a news conference Tuesday night. He said authorities were still determining the total number but thought they had accounted for all of the town’s residents.

Dinkla said there were at least a dozen injuries amid widespread devastation in Greenfield, including at the community’s small hospital. Patients there had to be transferred to other facilities in nearby cities.

Authorities said they would only allow residents to enter Greenfield until Wednesday morning and ordered media representatives to leave the city Tuesday night.

In the aftermath of the storm, parts of Greenfield appeared devastated. Mounds of broken wood, branches, car parts and other debris littered lots where homes once stood. Cars lay busted and bent while damaged houses sat skewed against the gray and overcast sky.

Trees stood — barely — bereft of branches or leaves. Residents helped each other salvage furniture and other belongings from mounds of debris or from homes barely left standing.

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 and continued to smolder hours later.

Storm damaged wind turbine on fire in Iowa
Multiple wind turbines were destroyed by a tornado near Carl, Iowa – one of which is fully involved in fire. Andrew Pritchard/IPM News

Wind farms are built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes and other powerful winds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, turbines are designed to shut off when winds exceed certain thresholds, typically around 55 mph (88.5 kph). They also lock and feather their blades, and turn into the wind, to minimize the strain.

The town bills itself as “the friendly wave as you walk” type of place with tree-lined streets — before the storm — and “the crack of the fireworks or twinkle of the lights” on special holidays. Also touting itself as the “perfect place to grow,” Greenfield prides itself on being a town where business owners know your name and neighbors help neighbors, according to its visitors page.

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. She emerged from her home to describe widespread damage and scattered debris.

“There’s a pretty significant roof damage to several houses that I know will need whole new roofs,” she said. “And I can see from my house it kind of went in a straight line down the road.”

In far southwestern Iowa, video posted to social media showed a tornado just northwest of Red Oak. Further east and north, the National Weather Service issued multiple tornado warnings for areas near the towns of Griswold, Corning, Fontanelle and Guthrie Center, among others.

Iowa was already 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. Des Moines public schools ended classes two hours early and canceled all evening activities ahead of the storms.

The storms and tornado warnings moved into Wisconsin Tuesday evening and night, including a warning for the state’s capital city of Madison.

Earlier in the day, residents to the west in Omaha, Nebraska, awoke to weather 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 arriving to rescue people from vehicles.

In Illinois, dust storms forced authorities to shut down stretches of two interstates due to low visibility. Winds gusts of between 35 mph (56 kph) and 45 mph (74 kph) hit the McLean area, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Schaffer.

“There is no visibility at times,” state police posted on the social media platform X.

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. Front-end loaders were used to move half-foot deep (1.83 meters deep) hail Tuesday.

Last week, deadly storms hit the Houston area in Texas, killing at least eight people. Those storms Thursday knocked out power to hundreds of thousands for days, leaving those Texans in the dark and without air conditioning during hot and humid weather. The total of deaths was raised Tuesday from seven to include a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while running a generator after his power went out. Hurricane-force winds reduced businesses and other structures to debris and shattered glass in downtown skyscrapers.

Tuesday’s storms were expected to bring much of the same high winds, heavy rain and large hail to Minnesota and part of northern Missouri, said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service.

He said the system is expected to turn south on Wednesday, bringing more severe weather to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and southern Missouri.
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McFetridge reported from Des Moines, Iowa, and Beck reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis, Josh Funk in Omaha, Colleen Slevin in Denver and Juan Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

Picture of Associated Press

Associated Press

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Severe storms possible Thursday evening and overnight

From the National Weather Service in Central Illinois: A line of t’storms will affect the area late Thursday afternoon into the overnight hours. Some severe storms are in the forecast, with damaging wind gusts and large hail. Stay weather aware and be ready to take shelter when storms approach.