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

Sunday, Apr 15, 2012 03:30 am | Rochelle Hines, The Associated Press
Two people walk past a gas fire in the Pinaire mobile home park in Wichita, Kansas Saturday April 14, 2012 after a tornado caused massive destruction in the area on Saturday night. Tornadoes were spotted across the Midwest and Plains on Saturday as an outbreak of unusually strong weather seized the region, and forecasters sternly warned that "life-threatening" weather could intensify overnight. (AP Photo/Travis Heying, Wichita Eagle)

OKLAHOMA CITY - Tornadoes reported across the Midwest and Plains on Saturday and early Sunday left five people dead in Oklahoma and damaged houses, a hospital, a jail, an Air Force base and other buildings around the region, officials said.

Oklahoma authorities said five people died early Sunday after a tornado hit in and around the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward. Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said the state medical examiner's office confirmed the fatalities in the Woodward area. She didn't know the gender or age of the victims or details of their deaths.

Authorities said there were injuries but details were still sketchy and the number and severity of the injured wasn't immediately available. Woodward police said search and rescue units from several areas had headed to the damage area soon after the tornado.

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

Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill said the sirens were not apparently working when the tornado struck, although they had been sounding loudly from storms on Saturday afternoon. The tornado hit in a mixed area of residences and businesses, Hill said.

"We had a little tornado earlier ... and they blew all the sirens. When this one came in, our sirens weren't working," Hill said.

Woodward police said search and rescue units headed to the damaged areas.

Storms also were reported in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

National Weather Service forecasters issued sobering outlooks that the worst of the weather would hit around nightfall, predicting that conditions were right for exceptionally strong tornadoes. Weather officials and emergency management officials 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.

When it's dark, it's also more difficult for weather spotters to clearly see funnel clouds or tornadoes.

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 neighbours 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 per cent 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 centre 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.

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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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