5 confirmed dead in northwest Oklahoma after tornadoes, severe storms lash Midwest and Plains

  • Article by: ROCHELLE HINES , Associated Press
  • Updated: April 15, 2012 - 7:09 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY - Tornadoes erupting across the Midwest and Plains left five people dead and several others injured in Oklahoma and damaged houses, a hospital, a jail, an Air Force base and other buildings during a weekend outburst of severe weather, authorities said.

Oklahoma emergency officials said five people died before dawn Sunday after a tornado hit in and around the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, the high winds damaging homes, toppling trees and downing power lines in that area about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The brunt of the damage was reported on the west side of the town of about 12,000, and in the neighboring community of Tangier.

Storms also were reported in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska as a severe storm system raked its way across the nation's midsection Saturday and Sunday. Lightning, large hail and heavy downpours accompanied the system.

Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said the state medical examiner's office confirmed five fatalities in the Woodward area early Sunday but search and rescue operations were still going on hours after the tornado hit shortly after midnight. She didn't know the gender or age of the victims or details of their deaths but several homes were damaged.

"Significant damage and injuries have been reported," she said in a statement.

She had no immediate count of the injured or severity of injuries. Police said search and rescue units from neighboring communities were joining in the effort. Cain said authorities were anxiously awaiting daybreak Sunday to accelerate efforts to aid the injured and take stock of the damage.

National Weather Service forecasters had issued sobering outlooks that the worst of the weather in the Midwest and Plains would hit in the nighttime hours, predicting that conditions were right for exceptionally strong tornadoes. Weather officials and emergency management officials had worried most about what would happen if strong storms hit when people were sleeping, not paying attention to weather reports and unlikely to hear warning sirens.

The National Weather Service said the deadly tornado hit Woodward at 12:18 a.m. Sunday.

Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill said warning sirens sounded loudly on Saturday afternoon when advance storms rumbled through but he didn't hear the sirens go off for Sunday's tornado. He said the tornado struck a mixed area of residences and businesses and there were reports of possible damage to a mobile home park.

"We had a little tornado earlier ... and they blew all the sirens. When this one came in, our sirens weren't working," Hill said. He added that power was knocked out to thousands.

The American Red Cross said it would send relief trucks early Sunday from Oklahoma City and other locations, adding first responders in the Woodward area appeared to be pressed to the limit to handle the immediate disaster response.

"They're in chaos mode," said Rusty Surette, a regional communications director for the American Red Cross in Oklahoma City, speaking of authorities in Woodward.

He said Red Cross volunteers early Sunday had loaded up trucks with cots, food, water and medical and hygiene supplies to roll toward Woodward once the line of severe storms had passed. He also said a shelter was being established at a church in Woodward but expressed frustration that relief would have wait until the dangerous storms had passed in the early hours.

In Kansas, a reported tornado in Wichita caused damage at McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants. A mobile home park was heavily damaged in the city, although no injuries or deaths were reported.

Yvonne Tucker rushed to a shelter with about 60 of her neighbors at Pinaire Mobile Home Park. She said people were crying and screaming, and the shelter's lights went out when the twister hit. When they came back outside, they found several homes destroyed, including Tucker's.

"I didn't think it was that bad until I walked down my street and everything is gone," said Tucker, 49. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go. I've seen it on TV, but when it happens to you it is unreal.

"I just feel lost."

Iowa emergency officials said a large part of the town of Thurman in the western part of the state was destroyed Saturday night, possibly by a tornado, but no one was injured or killed. Fremont County Emergency Management Director Mike Crecelius said about 75 percent of the 250-person town was destroyed. Some residents took refuge at the City Hall.

A hospital in Creston, about 75 miles southwest of Des Moines, suffered roof damage and had some of its windows blown out by the storm, but patients and staff were not hurt. Medical center officials were calling other area hospitals to determine how many beds they had available in case they needed to move patients.

In Nebraska, baseball-sized hail shattered windows and tore siding from houses in and around Petersburg, about 140 miles northwest of Omaha. In southeast Nebraska, an apparent tornado took down barns, large trees and some small rural structures. Johnson County emergency director Clint Strayhorn said he was trying to determine the twister's duration and the damage it caused.

"I'm on a 2-mile stretch that this thing is on the ground and I haven't even gotten to the end of it yet," he said, walking the path of destruction near the Johnson-Nemaha county line. He didn't immediately know of any injuries.

At least 10 tornadoes were reported in Kansas, mostly in rural parts of the western and central sections of the state. A suspected tornado narrowly avoided Salina, meteorologists said. Another was on the ground for about a half-hour north of Dodge City.

Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, declared a state of disaster and said preliminary estimates suggest damages could be as high as $283 million.

Kristin Dean, who was among the Wichita mobile home residents taking shelter during the storm, said she was shaking as she was being pushed from home in her wheelchair. She was able to grab a bag of her possessions before going into the shelter and that was all she had left. She lost her mobile home, and the windows in her car shattered.

"It got still," the 37-year-old woman, who's in a wheelchair after hurting her leg a month ago, recalled of the scene inside the shelter. "Then we heard a wham, things flying. Everybody screamed, huddling together.

"It is devastating, but you know we are alive."

Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson said Rice County was the only other Kansas county to issue a disaster declaration. Several buildings in the county were damaged, including the one housing the sheriff's department and jail. Inmates were transferred to another facility because of the damage.

Homes were damaged or destroyed in 10 other Kansas counties, Watson said.

Warnings for more serious storms continued. Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the Storm Prediction Center, said severe weather is possible Sunday "from east Texas and Arkansas and up into the Great Lakes."

"The threat isn't over with tonight, unfortunately," he said Saturday.

___

Associated Press reporters Grant Schulte and Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb.; David Pitt in Osceola, Iowa; Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kan.; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Erin Gartner in Chicago; and Ed Donahue in Washington contributed to this report.

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