February 11, 2009
An unusual cluster of February twisters touched down across Oklahoma, ripping off roofs, littering roads with downed power lines and killing eight people in a small southern town.
Emergency responders searched into the night in the hardest-hit community of Lone Grove, where 15 people have died and many others suffered serious injuries on Tuesday, according to Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten.
Rescuers found one woman injured but alive under an overturned mobile home, but eventually they suspended efforts until daybreak because of numerous electricity lines down.
A paramedic says much of the most severe damage in Lone Grove appears to center in two mobile home parks that were "pretty much wiped out."
State officials say the National Guard is coming to the area to assist local authorities.
A spokesman says Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry has spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who said her department will offer any immediate assistance that's needed.
Structures have been damaged or destroyed throughout the town of about 4,600, some 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, said Chester Agan, assistant emergency manager for Carter County.
A twister also touched down in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, where homes and businesses were damaged, but only three minor injuries were reported. A tornado also was reported in north-central Oklahoma and six homes were destroyed near the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.
In Edmond, a body shop and the vehicles inside were twisted into a ball of metal after a tornado moved through.
"It's just surreal," shop manager Michael Jerry said. "You just don't believe it. Especially knowing you were just there minutes before. The steel girders are in a ball."
Tornado watches were issued Wednesday for Mississippi, north-central Louisiana, southeast Arkansas and parts of Missouri and Tennessee.
In northwest Oklahoma City, the twister apparently developed near Wiley Post Airport and then headed northeast before damaging several shopping centers and restaurants at a major intersection.
One wall of a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant collapsed, windows were blown out, and a piece of the eatery's awning was thrown into a tree alongside an adjacent restaurant. Signs were stripped and cars were damaged in the parking lot.
It then moved through the Boulder Ridge Apartments, a spread of two-story units surrounding a courtyard.
Shawn Tiesman, 33, moved to the apartment complex from Iowa about four months ago and got his first taste of Oklahoma's notorious weather but without the same protection of his former home.
"Where I'm from, we've got basements," Tiesman said. "I'm amazed that there's no basements here."
Instead, he invited his upstairs neighbors into his apartment and then used his futon mattress to barricade them into a walk-in closet. When he emerged, he couldn't believe the wreckage.
A large section of roof was blown off an apartment building and part of a wall was blown off another. One apartment had a gaping hole knocked in its side.
Parked cars were shifted by the wind and smashed into each other. A line of fencing and a light pole were knocked to the ground where the twister moved into the backyard of two neighboring homes, leaving tree limbs, children's toys and a smashed air conditioning unit strewn in its path.
Tornado sirens went off in the area to warn residents that the storm was approaching, but some were still caught off guard.
"I can't believe we didn't hear it. You know how you normally hear it coming," said Traci Keil, 37.
In between downpours of rain, some residents wandered out to snap pictures of the wreckage with their cell phones. Neighbors helped clear pieces of plywood that had blocked in some of the cars in the parking lot.
"My kids are still in the closet and won't come out," Keil said as a third wave of downpours approached the apartment complex, more than an hour after the twister hit.
Power lines littered an intersection where motorists were told to stay in their cars until crews could clear the lines.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric reported about 8,900 customers without power, nearly 3,500 in Lone Grove, according to its Web site. Less than 1,000 Oklahoma City area customers were still in the dark. Eighteen power poles were snapped.
The Oklahoma County Election Board was preparing to tally votes for a school board election when a large area north of the state Capitol lost power about an hour before the polls closed.
Election board secretary Doug Sanderson said without electricity, election workers couldn't count the ballots. Election materials will be locked up overnight and workers will start the process on Wednesday, Sanderson said.
Besides the tornadoes, strong straight-line winds caused damage in southern and central Oklahoma, according to state emergency management officials.
Tornadoes are most numerous in Oklahoma in the spring, but can occur at any time, National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Smith said.
Winds of more than 60 mph caused dust storms in western Texas that reduced visibility so much some roads have been closed, the National Weather Service said.
The National Weather Service reported wind speeds reached 88 mph in parts of Texas, leaving behind downed trees and power outages late Tuesday night.
Emergency responders all the way from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to the Texas Hill Country said they would have to wait until daylight to assess storm damage.
In the closing minutes of the Dallas Mavericks game Tuesday night, the public address announcers suggested to fans that they stay in the building while the storms were passing through the downtown area.
The driver of an empty 18-wheeler was unable to cope with wind gusts as high as 70 mph and it flipped over Tuesday night in Bruceville-Eddy, a town of about 1,100 people nearly 106 miles south of Dallas.
"He was driving down the road and a gust of wind blew him over," Bruceville-Eddy Fire Chief Randall Sevey told The Associated Press. "He was just shook up."
February tornadoes in Oklahoma are unusual — but not unprecedented.
National Weather Service meteorologist Doug Speheger in Norman says 44 tornadoes have hit Oklahoma in February since 1950.
At least three touched down yesterday including one blamed for at least eight deaths in Lone Grove.
Speheger says February tornadoes aren't usually this early or this strong. The most recent February twister in the state was one that damaged a hog barn and power lines on February 24, 2000, in Ellis and Harper counties in western Oklahoma.