More hurricane-force wind gusts were reported across the US in a single day than ever before

By Travis Caldwell and Brandon Miller, CNN

    (CNN) -- Heavy winds barreled Wednesday from the Rockies to the Great Lakes, exacerbating fire dangers and setting weather records as gusts shut down a stretch of interstate, tore off roofs and even forced the evacuation of some air traffic controllers.

At least 55 reports of hurricane-force thunderstorm wind gusts over 75 mph were tracked across the Great Plains and Midwest, according to the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, setting a one-day national record. Around 300 severe wind reports came in across the regions throughout the day, with alerts impacting at least 80 million people.

A tornado in southeastern Minnesota was the first ever reported in the state in the month of December, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Nearly 20 tornado reports were documented Wednesday across Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

"I've been doing this 30 years, and we're seeing things today in the CNN Weather Center we have never seen before," CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said.

More than 470,000 customers were without power early Thursday in the areas affected, according to Wisconsin and Michigan are reporting the highest number of outages.

The storm is forecast to taper off, with many of the severe thunderstorm watches and warnings expiring overnight.

Several places in Colorado, including the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, reported wind gusts of 100 mph or greater Wednesday, according to the weather service. Winds gusting up to 107 mph in Lamar toppled semitrucks, ripped off roofs and downed trees, Mayor Kirk Crespin said.

Air traffic controllers briefly evacuated at Kansas City International Airport due "to wind and the fact that it is a glass box 256 feet up in the air," according to spokesperson Joe McBride. Planes resumed departures about one hour after controllers were forced to head to safety, the airport announced.

Parts of Interstate 70 in western Kansas were shut down due to blowing dust, reduced visibility, and crashes, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Wildfires in Texas and Kansas force evacuations

With winds whipped up at an exceeding rate, fires became a danger to residents in parts of the southern Plains and Southwest.

The combination of 35 to 55 mph winds, with gusts of 75 mph, as well as low relative humidity and temperatures in the 70s and 80s were a catalyst for unseasonably dangerous circumstances. Certain areas are also facing an ongoing drought.

"Dangerous, life-threatening fire weather conditions are likely with fast moving and uncontrollable fire spread due to extreme wind and dry conditions," the Storm Prediction said Wednesday morning. It noted that this was the first time in the history of the SPC that it was forecasting an "extremely critical" fire threat in December in the southern and central Plains.

An evacuation order was placed for the town of Guymon, Oklahoma, due to one of nine wildfires in western and northwestern Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Several hundred people were told "to evacuate or be prepared to evacuate" in the city of Iowa Park, Texas, in Wichita County in the northern part of the state. Two fires in the county are ongoing.

"The fire has changed direction a couple of times," Wichita County Sheriff's Office Deputy Melvin Joyner said, adding "we're working as hard as we can to keep residents safe."

A 2,500-acre blaze is burning west of Amarillo, the Texas A&M Forest Service reported, and the agency is responding to the fires in Wichita County.

Six homes and two other structures were reported damaged in the Texas Panhandle city of Pampa, according to a city announcement. No injuries were reported.

Kentucky still assessing damage from last week

As the storms swept across the central US, Kentucky and other states are still picking up the pieces from last week's tornado outbreak.

The damage rating for Friday night's deadly tornado that tore through Mayfield and Dawson Springs in Kentucky has been upgraded to an EF-4 in intensity, with estimated peak winds of 190 mph, based on continuing damage surveys from the National Weather Service.

The tornado had a maximum path width of a mile or more and was on the ground for at least 128 miles, tracking across the entire area of responsibility for the weather service's Paducah office. The tornado took more than two hours to move through western Kentucky.

The tornado length will likely increase as weather service offices near Paducah continue their surveys in the coming days, and the rating could be increased as well as more damage is surveyed.

President Joe Biden toured the areas hit on Wednesday and said he was shocked by the amount of damage wrought.

"The scope and scale of this destruction is almost beyond belief," he said in Dawson Springs. "These tornadoes devoured everything in their path."

Biden pledged federal funding for the recovery effort for the next 30 days, including "debris removal, cost of overtime and law enforcement, emergency service personnel and shelter, and that will get you through."

Kentucky's confirmed death toll from the tornadoes has been updated to 71 from 74 due to duplicate reporting, according to Kentucky Emergency Management. At least 14 others died in four other states.

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