5 dead as tornadoes hit Oklahoma City area

  • Article by: SEAN MURPHY , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 31, 2013 - 11:46 PM
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A tornado touches down near El Reno, Okla., Friday, May 31, 2013, causing damage to structures and injuring travelers on Interstate 40.

Photo: Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald via AP

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Tornadoes rolled in from the prairie and slammed Oklahoma City and its suburbs, trapping people in their vehicles as a storm swept down an interstate highway while commuters tried to beat it home.

Five people were killed, including a mother and baby killed near Union City. Another person died at El Reno, the first city struck by the storm, said Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner. Circumstances involving the other two deaths weren't immediately known, Elliott said.

About 50 people were hurt, five critically, hospital officials said.

Meteorologists had warned about particularly nasty weather Friday but said the storm's fury didn't match that of a deadly twister that struck suburban Moore last week. Violent weather also moved through the St. Louis area, ripping part of the roof off a suburban casino.

Friday's broad storm in Oklahoma hit during the evening rush hour and stuck around, causing havoc on Interstate 40, a major artery connecting suburbs east and west of the city, and dropping so much rain on the area that streets were flooded to a depth of 4 feet.

To the south, a severe storm with winds approaching 80 mph rolled into Moore, where a top-of-the-scale EF5 tornado killed 24 on May 20.

Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service at Norman, said that while the storm packed a powerful punch, it wasn't as strong as the Moore tornado.

"This storm had everything you could handle at one time: tornadoes, hail, lightning, heavy rain, people clogging the highways," Smith said.

The region was fortunate because the storm touched down mostly in rural areas and missed central Oklahoma City.

"It's not even close to anything like what we had last week," Smith said. "We were very concerned this would move into downtown. It would have been a major problem. It made all the difference that it was out in the country."

The U.S. averages more than 1,200 tornadoes a year and most are relatively small. Of the 60 EF5 tornadoes to hit since 1950, Oklahoma and Alabama have been hit the most � seven times each.

Heavy rain and hail hampered rescue efforts in Oklahoma City. Frequent lightning roiled the skies well after the main threat had moved east. Highways and streets were clogged late into the night as motorists worked their way around flooded portions of the city. Will Rogers World Airport said flights wouldn't resume until morning, after debris was cleared from runways.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph said troopers found the bodies of a woman and an infant near their vehicle. Randolph said it's not known if the woman was driving into the storm when it hit around 7 p.m. Friday.

Emergency officials reported that numerous injuries occurred in the area along I-40, and Randolph said there were toppled and wrecked cars littering the area. Troopers requested a number of ambulances at I-40 near Yukon, west of Oklahoma City.

Standing water was several feet deep, and in some places it looked more like a hurricane had passed through than a tornado. More than 86,000 utility customers were without power.

In Missouri, the combination of high water and fallen power lines closed dozen of roads, snarling traffic on highways and side streets in the St. Louis area. At the Hollywood Casino in suburban of Maryland Heights, gamblers rushed from the floor as a storm blew out windows and tore off part of the roof.

Rich Gordon, of Jefferson City, said he was on the casino floor when he heard a loud "boom."

"I didn't know if it was lightning or what, but it was loud," Gordon said.

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