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Residents assess tornado damage in Nebraska and Iowa, as storm threat continues

Terry Kicking sifts through the damage after a tornado leveled his home on Friday in Omaha, Neb.
Nikos Frazier
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
Terry Kicking sifts through the damage after a tornado leveled his home on Friday in Omaha, Neb.

Updated April 27, 2024 at 9:19 AM ET

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Residents began sifting through the rubble Saturday after a tornado plowed through suburban Omaha, Nebraska, demolishing homes and businesses as it moved for miles through farmland and into subdivisions, then slamming an Iowa town.

Dozens of reported tornadoes wreaked havoc Friday in the Midwest, causing a building to collapse with dozens of people inside and destroying and damaging at least 150 homes in Omaha alone.

But no fatalities were reported, and fewer than two dozen people were treated at Omaha-area hospitals, said Dr. Lindsay Huse, health director of the city's Douglas County Health Department.

A tornado is seen near north of Waverly, Neb., on Friday.
Chris Machian / Omaha World-Herald via AP
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
A tornado is seen near north of Waverly, Neb., on Friday.

"Miraculous" she said, stressing that none of the city's injuries were serious. Neighboring communities reported a handful of injuries each.

The tornado damage started Friday afternoon near Lincoln, Nebraska. An industrial building in Lancaster County was hit, causing it to collapse with 70 people inside. Several were trapped, but everyone was evacuated, and the three injuries were not life-threatening, authorities said.

One or possibly two tornadoes then spent around an hour creeping toward Omaha, leaving behind damage consistent with an EF3 twister, with winds of 135 to 165 mph, said Chris Franks, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Omaha office.

Ultimately the twister slammed into the Elkhorn neighborhood in western Omaha, a city of 485,000 people with a metropolitan-area population of about 1 million.

"We barely made it to the basement and then we heard the destruction going on upstairs," said James Stennis, who moved to the Elkhorn neighborhood about a year ago. "Wow!"

Firefighters worked into the evening to make sure no one was trapped. By Saturday morning, the sounds of chainsaws filled the air there. Lumber from the damaged homes lay in piles. Fences were knocked over, and the trees were skeletal, missing most of their branches.

Damaged houses are seen after a tornado passed through the area near Omaha on Friday.
Chris Machian / Omaha World-Herald via AP
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
Damaged houses are seen after a tornado passed through the area near Omaha on Friday.

Staci Roe surveyed the damage to what was supposed to be her "forever home," which was not even two years old. When the tornado hit, they were at the airport picking up a friend who was supposed to spend the night.

"There was no home to come to," she said, describing "utter dread" when she saw it for the first time.

Power outages peaked at 10,000, but they had dropped to 4,300 by morning.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds spent Saturday touring the damage and arranging for assistance for the damaged communities. Formal damage assessments are still underway, but the states plan to seek federal help.

Omaha police officers search a home for a family after a tornado leveled dozens of homes near the city on Friday.
Nikos Frazier / Omaha World-Herald via AP
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
Omaha police officers search a home for a family after a tornado leveled dozens of homes near the city on Friday.

"It is an extraordinary miracle that we've had this kind of cell come through and no casualties, no loss of life," Pillen marveled at a news conference.

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson begged gawkers to stay at home, saying he and Pillen were stuck in multiple traffic jams while viewing the wreckage.

"And that's because in large part there's a lot of looky-loos who are very curious," he said. Hanson said law enforcement would be out in force to safeguard the damaged property.

A second tornado then passed over Eppley Airfield on the eastern edge of Omaha, destroying four hanger buildings with 32 privately owned planes inside. No one was hurt, and the passenger terminal was not hit. The airport has resumed operations, although access to areas used by noncommercial pilots is limited so crew can clean up the mess, the airfield said in a news release.

Franks estimated that this twister was a slightly weaker EF2, capable of winds of 111 to 135 mph.

"Strong tornadoes, rare tornadoes," he called the duo of twisters that hit the city.

After hitting the airport, the storm moved into Iowa, taking aim at the small town of Minden.

Severe weather damage to Eppley Airfield in Omaha can be seen from the Lewis and Clark Monument in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday.
Anna Reed / Omaha World-Herald via AP
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
Severe weather damage to Eppley Airfield in Omaha can be seen from the Lewis and Clark Monument in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday.

Forty to 50 homes were completely destroyed. Two injuries were reported but none were life-threatening, said Jeff Theulen, chief deputy of the Pottawattamie County Sheriff's Office, at a late Friday briefing.

"It's heartbreaking to see these people who have lost houses, cars, essentially their life until they have to rebuild it," he said, urging people to stay away because of downed power lines.

At the Minden United Church of Christ, which survived the storm and has become a community hub of help and support, there were plans to take 4-wheel-drive vehicles out to devastated parts of town to bring meals to those who need them, Pastor Eric Biehl said.

"A lot of people are just kind of in shock," Biehl said. "It's all overwhelming now."

Tammy Pavich, who stores equipment on the west edge of town, said she "kind of breathed a sigh of relief" after the first round of tornadoes moved through Omaha. Then, she recalled, the storm "hit Minden dead-on."

Todd Lehan, a lifelong resident of the town, said he took shelter in a windowless basement. "It sounded like a vacuum cleaner on top of your house," he recalled.

Just west of the Iowa town of Pleasant Hill, a suspected tornado also damaged nearly 20 homes, injuring one person.

The damage was causing headaches for Nebraska football fans headed to the spring game.

Damage is seen to Justin and Amanda Putnam's bedroom after a severe storm damaged their neighborhood in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday.
Anna Reed / Omaha World-Herald via AP
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Omaha World-Herald via AP
Damage is seen to Justin and Amanda Putnam's bedroom after a severe storm damaged their neighborhood in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Friday.

"Be prepared for heavy traffic, buckle up and put the phone down," warned the Nebraska Department of Transportation.

Even as the National Weather Service worked to evaluate the damage, the forecast for Saturday was ominous. It issued tornado watches for parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. Large hail also was possible. Some schools canceled proms because of the forecasts.

"Tornadoes, perhaps significant tornadoes," were possible Saturday afternoon and evening, said weather service meteorologist Bruce Thoren in Norman, Oklahoma.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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