Midwest Tornadoes: Authorities Say 5 Dead In Okla.

11:35 AM, Apr 15, 2012   |    comments
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Tornadoes erupting across the Midwest and Plains left five people dead and several others injured in Oklahoma early Sunday and damaged houses, a hospital, a jail, an Air Force base and other buildings during a weekend outburst of severe weather, authorities said.

Oklahoma authorities said five people died before dawn after a tornado hit in and around the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, causing injuries and inflicting extensive damage to the west side of that town of 12,000 about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Trees and power lines toppled and thousands lost power.

Storms also were reported in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska as a severe storm system raked its way across the nation's midsection.

Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said the state medical examiner's office confirmed five fatalities in the Woodward area. She didn't know the gender or age of the victims or details of their deaths but said several homes had been damaged.

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

She said while there were several injuries she had no immediate count of those injured or the severity of the injuries. Police said search and rescue units from several areas had headed to the damage area soon after the tornado but reports were still sketchy in the pre-dawn darkness and 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 from storms on Saturday afternoon but he didn't hear them go off. He said the tornado struck a mixed area of residences and businesses and he also said first responders were rushing to check 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 in the community.

Relief groups mobilized early Sunday from Oklahoma City and other cities to aid hard-pressed authorities seeking to respond to the tornado.

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

He said Red Cross volunteers early Sunday had loaded up trucks with cots, food, water and medical supplies to roll out once 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.

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