News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 20, 2013

Update: Oklahoma, other tornado-hit states brace for more

SHAWNEE, Okla. — When Lindsay Carter heard on the radio that a violent storm was approaching her rural Oklahoma neighborhood, she gathered her belongings and fled. When she returned, there was little left.

Sunday’s tornado that tore part of the roof from Carter’s frame house — one of few such homes in the Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park near Shawnee — laid waste to many of her neighbors’ places, and killed two people and injured several others.

“Trees were all gone. I walked further down and all those houses were gone,” she said of her return home to the neighborhood.

The tornado was one of several that touched down Sunday in the nation’s midsection, concentrating damage in central Oklahoma and Wichita, Kan. Two people were killed in or near the mobile home park, which is outside of Shawnee, a community about 35 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. At least 39 people throughout Oklahoma were injured, according to the state’s emergency management director, Albert Ashwood.

The National Weather Service was forecasting more of the same for the region — including Oklahoma City and Tulsa — this afternoon and evening, warning of the possibility of tornadoes and baseball-sized hail. Residents of Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri were also warned to watch for bad weather today.

Gov. Mary Fallin began touring the hardest-hit areas early today, including Carney, in Lincoln County, and a mobile home park near Shawnee, 35 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, that suffered a direct hit and was where the two confirmed deaths happened.

“It took a dead hit,” resident James Hoke said of the Steelman Estates Mobile Home Park. Emerging from a storm cellar where he sought refuge with his wife and two children, Hoke found that their mobile home had vanished. “Everything is gone.”

Hoke said he started trying to help neighbors and found his wife’s father covered in rubble.

“My father-in-law was buried under the house. We had to pull Sheetrock off of him,” Hoke said.

Forecasters had been warning of bad weather since Wednesday and on Sunday said conditions had ripened for powerful tornadoes. Wall-to-wall broadcasts of storm information spread the word Sunday, leaving Pottawatomie County Sheriff Mike Booth grateful.

“There was a possibility a lot more people could have been injured,” Booth said. “This is the worst I’ve seen in Pottawatomie County in my 25 years of law enforcement.”

Booth said a 79-year-old man, who was later identified as Glen Irish, was found dead out in the open at Steelman Estates. The state medical examiner’s office said today that a 76-year-old man, Billy Hutchinson, was found dead in a vehicle. The office said both men lived in Shawnee, but the city wasn’t hit by the tornado and it wasn’t immediately clear if either or both lived in the mobile home park, which is near the city.

“You can see where there’s absolutely nothing, then there are places where you have mobile home frames on top of each other, debris piled up,” Booth said. “It looks like there’s been heavy equipment in there on a demolition tour.

“It’s pretty bad. It’s pretty much wiped out,” he said.

Tornadoes were reported Sunday in Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma as part of a storm system that stretched from Texas to Minnesota.

Emergency officials traversed the neighborhoods struck in Oklahoma in an effort to account for everyone. Keli Cain, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said that, many times in such situations, people who are not found immediately are discovered later to have left the area ahead of the storm.

A storm spotter told the National Weather Service that the tornado left the earth “scoured” at the mobile home park. At the nearby intersection of Interstate 40 and U.S. 177, a half-dozen tractor-trailers were blown over, closing both highways for a time.

“It seemed like it went on forever. It was a big rumbling for a long time,” said Shawn Savory, standing outside his damaged remodeling business in Shawnee. “It was close enough that you could feel like you could reach out and touch it.”

Fallin declared an emergency for 16 Oklahoma counties because of the severe storms and flooding. The declaration lets local governments acquire goods quickly to respond to their residents’ needs and puts the state in line for federal help if it becomes necessary.

Heavy rains and straight-line winds hit much of western Oklahoma on Saturday. Tornadoes were also reported Sunday at Edmond, Arcadia and near Wellston to the north and northeast of Oklahoma City. The supercell that generated the twisters weakened as it approached Tulsa, 90 miles to the northeast.

In Wichita, Kan., a tornado touched down near Mid-Continent Airport on the city’s southwest side shortly before 4 p.m., knocking out power to thousands of homes and businesses but bypassing the most populated areas of Kansas’ biggest city. The Wichita tornado was an EF1 — the strength of tornado on the enhanced Fujita scale — with winds of 110 mph, according to the weather service.

Golf ball-sized hail slammed homes in the area. Jim Raulston, of Wichita, said the ferocious winds slammed the hailstones into his home.

“It was just unbelievable how the hail and everything was just coming straight sideways,” Raulston said.

Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan said there were no reports of fatalities or injuries in Kansas.

The weather service reported two tornadoes touched down in Iowa — near Huxley and Earlham. Damage included the loss of some cattle when the storm blew over a barn on a farm in Mitchell County. Some 6,000 customers were without power today, including in the hardest-hit areas where the tornado sirens were also rendered silent. In the event of new impending strikes, first responders planned to use their emergency vehicles’ sirens to warn residents.

— Associated Press writers Ken Miller in Shawnee, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.

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