ROCHELLE HINES and ROXANNA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Tornadoes raking communities across the Midwest and Plains left five people dead and at least 29 injured in Oklahoma, damaging a hospital, homes and other buildings as a vast severe weather front plunged eastward Sunday across the nation's midsection.
Oklahoma emergency officials said five people died after a tornado touched down at 12:18 a.m. Sunday in and around the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, the high winds damaging homes, toppling trees and downing power lines 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 its outskirts, where search teams scoured the rubble for hours for any still trapped or injured.
Storms also were reported in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska as a wide-ranging storm system lumbered its way across the nation's midsection Saturday and Sunday. Lightning, large hail and heavy downpours accompanied the system, which was so large that it still posed a severe weather threat from Minnnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in the north to eastern Texas and Louisiana hundreds of miles to the south.
Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said the state medical examiner's office confirmed five fatalities in the Woodward area early Sunday. She said she didn't know the gender or age of the victims or details of their deaths but several homes were damaged. More than 8,000 customers were without power in the region.
Dave Wallace, chief executive officer of Woodward Regional Hospital, said 29 people, five of them in critical condition, were brought to the hospital for treatment of injuries ranging fractures and serious injuries to cuts and bruises. Three patients have been transferred to other hospitals and four were admitted, he added.
"We transferred them to a hospital with a higher level of care," Wallace said. "We're not a trauma center."
A deputy director in Cain's office, Michelann Ooten, told AP that emergency crews remained very much in search and rescue mode at first light, hours after they began operations in darkness.
"They're still going door to door and in some cases there are piles of rubble and they are having to sift through the rubble," she told AP. "They are trying to identify if anyone is still in there, trying to account for everyone."
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting, had warned of a "high-end, life-threatening event" nearly two days before the bad weather hit. It was just the second time in U.S. history that the center issued a high-risk warning more than 24 hours in advance. The first was in April 2006, when nearly 100 tornadoes tore across the southeastern U.S., killing a dozen people and damaging more than 1,000 homes in Tennessee.
The center's spokesman, Chris Vaccaro, said the weather service had received at least 97 reports of tornadoes by dawn Sunday and survey teams would be heading out to investigate and determine the number of actual tornadoes, their highest winds, and the width and length of their destructive paths. Several large funnel clouds and tornadoes were photographed and videographed during the outbreak.
He warned the threat wasn't over for those across several states in the nation's interior.
"Severe weather is possible in a swath from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan south to eastern Texas and Louisiana," Vaccaro told AP.
National Weather Service forecasters also had issued somber 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. Emergency management officials had worried most about what would happen if potent storms hit when people were sleeping, not paying attention to weather reports and unlikely to hear warning sirens.
A tornado watch in and around Tulsa and some areas continued through daybreak.
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 possibly damaged 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. But he later said in televised reports that some reported hearing sirens closer to the tornado's track though he didn't from his home about 10 blocks away.
The American Red Cross summoned volunteers to drive relief trucks from Oklahoma City to aid the rescue crews in and around Woodward he said were pressed to the limit by 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 trucks with cots, food, water and medical and hygiene supplies would head to the area, where a shelter was established in a church for those rendered homeless.
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.The county where Wichita is located was declared a state of disaster and said preliminary estimates suggest damages could be as high as $283 million.
Kristin Dean, among the Wichita mobile home residents sheltering from 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 said several buildings in Rice County were damaged, including one housing the sheriff's department and jail. Inmates were transferred because of the damage. She also said homes were damaged or destroyed in several other counties.