Shattered towns pick up the pieces as 2024 stacks up to be the most active tornado season since 2017

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(NEW YORK) -- The town of Greenfield, Iowa, resembled a war zone on Thursday with uprooted trees and overturned cars in all directions and splintered wood that was once part of homes and businesses. Residents searched for belongings and family heirlooms in the rubble left by a devastating tornado that ripped through the community, killing four people.

A swarm of at least 26 twisters roared through Greenfield and other parts of Iowa and five other Midwestern states on Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning. The funnel cloud that tore through Greenfield was confirmed by the National Weather Service to be an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with maximum wind speeds reaching 135 mph.

A fifth person was killed in what is believed to be a tornado-related incident about 25 miles from Greenfield, officials said.

Besides those killed, 35 people were injured in Greenfield, which is about 60 miles southwest of Des Moines.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday that at least 202 homes in Iowa were destroyed or sustained major damage. She said she expanded a disaster declaration from 15 to 32 counties and has submitted an application for disaster relief to FEMA and the White House.

"Hearing the stories from residents who barely escaped with their lives is both heartbreaking and inspiring," Reynolds said. "Our deepest condolences go out to those who lost loved ones."

Donna Dubberke, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Des Moines, said the agency surveyed three separate long-track tornadoes that left destructive paths totaling 130 miles. Dubberke said Iowa was in store for more severe weather Thursday night.

"It's very heartbreaking," Greenfield resident Cam Harter told ABC News as she and her husband, Jay Harter, sifted through the rubble of their home of 26 years.

"These are the stairs that led to the basement," Cam Harter pointed out. "The whole top part is gone. The garage back there, a two-and-a-half car garage, is gone."

Even metal grain silos could not withstand the powerful storm, leaving many of them crumpled as if they were tin cans. Several towering wind turbines were also knocked over, including one that caught on fire.

Joan Newall stood near her destroyed Greenfield home of more than 50 years as he told ABC News that when the twister hit, she took shelter in the basement, where search-and-rescue crews found her and pulled her to safety.

She said four of her neighbors did not survive.

“Their house had no basement," Newall said.

Throughout Greenfield Thursday, an army of electrical crews worked to restore power. Search-and-rescue teams combed the town for possible survivors, marking homes and vehicles with spray paint indicating they had been searched and cleared.

According to the National Weather Service, at least 21 of the 26 reported tornadoes spawned by severe weather on Tuesday struck Iowa between 5:44 p.m. and 11 p.m. CT.

The only hospital serving Greenfield, the Adair County Health System (ACHS), sustained substantial damage, forcing the evacuation of staff and patients and the closure of the facility, hospital officials said.

"There were no injuries to staff or patients inside the hospital during the storm," officials said in a statement. "The hospital was closed immediately after the tornado passed through that devastated the town of Greenfield. It will remain closed until further assessments can be completed. It is likely to take weeks, if not months, to fully repair the damage."

Hospital staff have set up a temporary hospital for primary care services at an elementary school and high school on Thursday. The city of Temple in Bell County suffered the brunt of the tornado damage, officials said.

The severe weather continued Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, spawning tornadoes in central Texas. The City of Temple, Texas, took the brunt of the storm.

Dozens of homes, businesses and structures in Temple were damaged or destroyed, officials said. The storms took off the roofs of at least 30 homes in Temple, knocked down numerous powerlines and pulled up trees across the city.

Temple residents Abbie Rurup and Gavin Ethridge told ABC affiliate station KVUE in Austin that at one point during Wednesday's storm the floors, walls and ceiling of her home were shaking, prompting them to take shelter in a backroom closet.

"Whenever I first walked out of the house, [a] whole side row of houses and their roofs were almost completely gone," Rurup said. "I just broke down."

Ethridge said windows of their kitchen and living room were blown out during the chaotic weather event and a powerline fell across their backyard.

"You always like to hear about it and see it in movies. But for it to actually happen here… definitely just happy and blessed that we're OK," Ethridge said.

Shadavia Blakemore told KVUE that the ceiling of her apartment caved in during the storm.

“I mean it was just loud, the wind kept picking up and it was just harder than what I normally hear," Blakemore explained. "It started sounding like a train and the winds just got too heavy and like I knew a tornado [was] outside."

Blakemore said she immediately packed some belongings and went to her mother's nearby home to ride out the storm.

"I am upset because I have to leave my apartment and it's caved in," Blakemore added. "I guess it's bittersweet because I mean, my lease is about to be up. We’re safe, that’s the most important thing.”

More than 200 severe storms were reported Wednesday from New York to Texas.

2024 has been the most active tornado season to date since 2017 with 859 tornadoes reported so far. The average number of tornadoes from January to May is 578.

More severe weather is forecast through the Memorial Day weekend for a huge part of the Heartland from the Dakotas all the way south to Texas, including the major cities of Dallas, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Kansas City, Omaha and Fargo.

Damaging winds and large hail will be the biggest threat on Friday but the possibility of a few potential tornadoes cannot be ruled out from northern Texas to Nebraska.

On Friday, severe weather is expected from Dallas to Chicago with damaging winds and hail being the biggest possible threat.

On Saturday, severe weather is forecast from Dallas to Lincoln, Nebraska, and a tornado threat is expected to increase.

Looking ahead, severe weather could also continue into Sunday and possibly this Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 4:11PM by Bill Hutchinson, Max Golembo, Jon Haworth, and Victor Oquendo, ABC News Permalink