Forecasts, TV and luck eased tornado risk in Okla.

By Kristi Eaton

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 25 2011 5:11 p.m. MDT

This photo provided by Shelby Barrow shows a tornado near Chickasha, Okla., Tuesday, May 24, 2011. A line of violent thunderstorms roared across middle America on Tuesday, killing six people in two states, with several tornadoes touching down in Oklahoma and high winds pounding rural Kansas.

Shelby Barrow) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PIEDMONT, Okla. — When three tornadoes marched toward Oklahoma City and its suburbs, thousands of people in the path benefited from good forecasts, luck and live television to avoid the kind of catastrophe that befell Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.

Even though more than a dozen people died in the latest round of violent weather, schools and offices closed early, giving many families plenty of time to take shelter. And even stragglers were able to get to safety at the last minute because TV forecasters narrated the twisters' every turn.

"We live in Oklahoma and we don't mess around," Lori Jenkins of Guthrie said after emerging from a neighbor's storm shelter to find her carport crumpled and her home damaged.

The people of Oklahoma City, which has been struck by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city, knew the storms were coming. Anxiety was perhaps running higher than usual after last month's twister outbreak in the South that killed more than 300 people and a Sunday storm that killed at least 122 in Joplin, Mo.

The Oklahoma twisters proved to be weaker than the other tornadoes. But the minute-by-minute accounts of the developing weather helped thousands of people stay abreast of the danger.

Television helicopters broadcast live footage while the system approached the metropolitan area of 1.2 million people — calling out to specific communities like Piedmont to "Take cover now!"

In Guthrie, about 30 miles north of the capital city, Ron Brooks was watching when he learned that a tornado was barreling toward him. He heeded the weatherman's warning, scooped up his two children and took cover with his wife in their laundry room.

"When they told us to get into the shelter or interior room, we did that," Brooks said. "The first year I moved to Oklahoma, in 1997, I saw a funnel drop out of a wall cloud. Since seeing one, I've always taken it pretty seriously." He emerged 20 minutes later, relieved to learn that the tornado passed just north of his home.

Forecasters said another line of severe storms could sweep through the nation's midsection Wednesday, mainly east of Oklahoma. A tornado warning was briefly issued for downtown Kansas City, Mo., and at least two weak tornadoes touched down in or near the suburbs.

A few others were reported in Illinois. The storms were expected to move into western Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi later in the day.

In Joplin, the city manager said Wednesday that 125 people had died in the storm, raising by three the toll of the nation's deadliest single tornado since 1950. He said more than 900 people had been injured.

Rescue and recovery work continued, with crews repeating grid searches for any survivors who might still be buried in rubble. Structural engineers were sent inside the ruins of St. John's Medical Center, which was crippled by the twister, to see if the hospital could be saved.

Back in the Oklahoma City area, at least nine people were killed, despite broadcasters offering live coverage of the storms for two hours before the bad weather actually hit around the evening rush hour.

Across the border in Arkansas, people in the tiny hamlet of Denning didn't have the luxury of an early warning. A tornado killed at least one person there. Storms left three others dead elsewhere in Arkansas and killed two in Kansas.

The storms arrived in Denning in the darkness, with a warning posted only about 10 minutes before a tornado nearly obliterated the town of 270 shortly after midnight.

Troy Ellison didn't even have that much time.

He was watching a movie in his mobile home when he switched on the TV news. The tornado was four minutes away.

"We were going to take the work truck and get out," Ellison said. "I looked out the back door with my son and it was coming."

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS