News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 25, 2011

NEW: Violent storms kill 13 in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas

EL RENO, Okla. — Violent storms with winds of more than 150 mph slammed into a chunk of the central U.S. overnight, killing at least 13 people in three states, flattening homes, crushing cars and ripping apart a rural Arkansas fire station.

The high-powered storms arrived Tuesday night and early Wednesday, just days after a massive tornado tore up the southwest Missouri city of Joplin and killed 122 people.

The latest storms killed at least eight people in Oklahoma and two in Kansas before trekking east into Arkansas to claim three more lives.

Just outside the tiny community of Denning in western Arkansas, winery owner Eugene Post listened from his porch as a tornado barreled toward his home. He saw the lights flicker, as the storms yanked power from the community.

“I didn’t see anything,” Post, 83, said early Wednesday. “I could hear it real loud though. ... It sounded like a train — or two or three — going by.”

Department of Emergency Management spokesman Tommy Jackson said one person died in that tornado early Wednesday, and another was killed in Bethlehem, Johnson County. Franklin County’s chief deputy sheriff, Deputy Devin Bramlett, said early Wednesday that a third person died in Etna.

“I don’t know, it’s just unbelievable,” said Rick Covert, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator for Franklin County, Ark. “It’s just total devastation.”

A rural fire station in Franklin County was left without a roof as emergency workers rushed to the wounded. Downed trees and power lines tossed across roadways also slowed search-and-rescue crews’ efforts.

Emergency officials have accounted for everyone else in Bethlehem, said county emergency management director Josh Johnston. Crews were working through the night in the hopes of saying the same thing for other communities.

Hours earlier, several tornadoes struck Oklahoma City and its suburbs during the Tuesday night rush hour, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 60 others, including three children who were in critical condition, authorities said.

Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office, said five people were killed in Canadian County, two in Logan County and one in Grady County. A weather-monitoring site in El Reno recorded 151 mph winds.

Ballard said a child was among those killed, but she had no other details.

The storms destroyed homes in Piedmont, some 20 miles northwest of Oklahoma City and threw vehicles about like toys tossed from a stroller.

“My husband and I were driving around yesterday and went past a house and there was a vehicle in the pond in the front yard. The only way I could tell it was a vehicle was I could see four wheels above the water. It was a crushed ball,” Piedmont Mayor Valerie Thomerson said Wednesday.

“We have anything from houses that have shingles blown off, to half the house missing, to the house being completely wiped out, gone,” Thomerson said.

Some residents said they had been warned about the impending weather for days and were watching television or listening to the radio so they would know when to take cover.

“We live in Oklahoma and we don’t mess around,” Lori Jenkins said. “We kept an eye on the weather and knew it was getting close.”

She took refuge with her husband and two children in a neighbor’s storm shelter in the Oklahoma City suburb of Guthrie. When they emerged, they discovered their carport had been destroyed and the back of their home was damaged.

Chris Pyle was stunned as he pulled into the suburban neighborhood near Piedmont where he lived as a teenager. His parents’ home was destroyed, but the house next door had only a few damaged shingles.

“That’s when it started sinking in,” he said. “You don’t know what to think. There are lots of memories, going through the trash tonight, finding old trophies and pictures.”

His parents, Fred and Snow Pyle, rode out the storm in a shelter at a nearby school.

At Chickasha, 25 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, a 26-year-old woman died when a tornado hit a mobile home park where residents had been asked to evacuate their trailers, Assistant Police Chief Elip Moore said. He said a dozen people were injured and that hundreds were displaced when the storm splintered their homes.

In Kansas, police said two people died when high winds threw a tree into their van around 6 p.m. near the small town of St. John, about 100 miles west of Wichita. The highway was shut down because of storm damage.

The path of the storms included Joplin, which is cleaning up from a Sunday storm that was the nation’s eighth-deadliest twister among records dating to 1840. Late-night tornado sirens had Joplin’s residents ducking for cover again before the storm brushed past without serious problems.

The storms also blew through North Texas, but the damage seemed to be confined to roofs and trees and lawn furniture and play equipment.

“The hail was probably more destructive,” said Steve Fano, National Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth.

Associated Press Writers Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark., Terry Wallace in Dallas, Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Dana Fields in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.

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