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5 dead, 21 tornadoes confirmed after record-setting winds lash central U.S.

At least five people died, mostly in car crashes, as tornadoes and extremely high winds struck parts of the Midwest.
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At least five people are dead after a storm swept across the Great Plains and Midwest on Wednesday, bringing record-breaking winds and more than a dozen tornadoes across four states.

Most of the five deaths involved crashes. In Iowa, the driver of a semitruck was killed after the large vehicle was struck by a strong gust of wind, the state patrol said.

In Kansas, three people died in car crashes related to the storm, and in Minnesota, an Olmsted County man was killed Wednesday when a 40-foot tree fell on him, officials said.

At least 21 tornadoes were confirmed in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the National Weather Service said after sending storm survey teams to affected areas.

In Iowa, at least 13 tornadoes touched down and storm surveys were ongoing Thursday, the weather service said. An EF2 with around 120 mph winds struck near Atlantic, Iowa.

Jim Pellett told NBC affiliate WHO of Des Moines that his wife convinced him to go to the basement on their farm.

“We’d no more than gotten down there and it did hit,” Pellett told the station. “It seemed like a big smack ... then we heard glass breaking and trees snapping.”

Two EF2 tornadoes in Clark County, Wisconsin, destroyed one home and tore the roof off another, the weather service in La Crosse said.

Five tornadoes struck in Nebraska south of Omaha, one of which heavily damaged a horse farm, and damage from a tornado was also found in Hartland, Minnesota.

According to the Storm Prediction Center, Wednesday’s winds were record-setting, with the most wind gusts of 75 mph or greater since at least 2004. There were 55 such gusts “and counting,” it said late Wednesday.

Video released by the Nebraska State Patrol showed a big rig topple in front of a trooper on Interstate 80 near Lincoln on Wednesday afternoon. The driver was not injured.

The weather was "very unusual for December," Bryon Miller, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Omaha/Valley office, said. "Going back at least 50 years there hasn’t been an event in eastern Nebraska or western Iowa like this in the month of December."

Forecasters had warned of an “extremely powerful storm system” that would bring the threat of severe thunderstorms and damaging winds across the Great Plains and Upper Midwest on Wednesday night.

Roads in western Kansas, including a portion of Interstate 70, were closed due to blowing dust and crashes, the state Department of Transportation said.

Tractor-trailers in the state blew over and there were brownout conditions and close to zero visibility near Wakeeney, Kansas, and officials urged people to stay off the highways. Kansas State University Salinas said its campus suffered weather damage and was closed.

“If you don’t have to travel, don’t. Stay home,” the Kansas DOT had urged in a tweet.

Wildfires in Kansas caused and fueled by high winds led to evacuation orders for cities in Osborne, Russell and Rooks counties, NBC affiliate KSN of Wichita reported.

Residents were later allowed to return, Russell County Administrator John Fletcher told the station. A wildfire also prompted Sheridan County officials to evacuate a few homes near Quinter, according to The Associated Press.

Wednesday’s weather also caused air traffic controllers at Kansas City International Airport to evacuate the “tower cab” for a little less than an hour, the airport said.

The high winds also knocked down power lines and toppled a truck in Colorado, and prompted the closure of several roads, state and local officials said.

Parts of Jefferson County, Colorado, saw wind gusts of up to 95 mph Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Boulder said.

More than 500 flights at Denver International Airport were delayed and almost 150 were canceled, according to the flight-tracking site FlightAware.

In Colorado Springs, firefighters responded to hundreds of calls even as the roof of its headquarters was blown off, the fire department said.

The high winds that battered the central U.S. come days after deadly storms and tornadoes that struck Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday that one of those tornadoes, which devastated the Kentucky city of Mayfield and others, was an EF4 with 190 mph winds.

President Joe Biden visited Kentucky on Wednesday and pledged federal help.

The number of deaths across the five states reached 90, with 76 of them in Kentucky.

The body of a missing 13-year-old girl was found in a wooded area in Bowling Green on Thursday, days after her parents, three siblings and a grandmother also died in the tornado, the Associated Press reported.

Speaking at a press conference earlier, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the number of unaccounted for was down to just over a dozen after topping 100 earlier this week.

Beshear also praised the president's promise of federal help.

"The Federal government has done absolutely everything that we have asked them to do, and we've asked for some things that were hard for them to say yes on," Beshear said.

He praised FEMA's quick response, saying 700 agents were already on the ground in Kentucky, what he described as "one of the biggest, most robust responses that we have seen."

"And I can't believe this, but they've already made payments from FEMA — we've got at least $550,000 that has gone out the door — we're on day six," the governor said.