Warnings credited in Midwest tornado outbreak

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 16 2012 8:49 a.m. MDT

Carole Beckett reacts as she sorts through belongings at her home after a tornado moved through Woodward, Okla., Sunday, April 15, 2012. Residents of several states scoured through the wreckage of battered homes and businesses after dozens of tornadoes blitzed the Midwest and Plains Saturday night.

The Oklahoman, Bryan Terry, Associated Press

THURMAN, Iowa — Concerned that Midwesterners might be complacent after repeated tornado warnings came to nothing, forecasters issued a sternly worded alert, well in advance, that weekend storms could prove fatal.

The warnings caught Larry Hill's attention.

The 72-year-old kept an eye on television weather reports and was barricaded inside a closet by the time a tornado ripped the roof off his home in the southwest Iowa town of Thurman.

"We'd been on the lookout for it for three days," he said Sunday morning as he sifted through the remains of his home. "We were as ready as we could have been."

That twister was one of dozens that strafed the region on Saturday and Sunday. The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting, had warned more than 24 hours ahead of a possible "high-end, life-threatening event."

In the end, only one proved fatal.

"We can't do this with every event," said the prediction center's Ken Miller, noting that it's not easy to predict which storm systems could pose a threat to life and property.

Miller said he was pleased the warnings were heeded.

"We measure our success by how the public reacts," he said.

The weather service in Wichita, Kan., went a step further, warning that residents "could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter.

"Complete destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely," the impact-based warning said. "Mass devastation is highly likely, making the area unrecognizable to survivors."

In south central Kansas, Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan credited the dire language of the warnings for saving lives.

"People become used to those warnings. That is a dangerous complacency," Duncan said. "We need to break through the clutter of everyday noise to get people's attention."

A National Weather Service official said a "month's worth" of tornados were spotted in Kansas over the weekend. About 100 homes were damaged in a Wichita mobile home park, but no serious injuries or fatalities were reported.

"We knew well ahead of time that this was going to be ugly. People listened," Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said.

One northwest Oklahoma town was not so fortunate. As a monster twister bore down, cloaked in darkness in Sunday's early hours, Woodward's 20 outdoor tornado sirens did not sound — apparently knocked out when lightning struck a tower used to activate the system.

Frank Hobbie and his daughters, aged 5 and 7 years, died when the tornado hit the mobile home park where they lived, as did Darren Juul and a 10-year-old girl at a home a few miles away.

State medical examiner's office spokeswoman Amy Elliot said no other details were available but that a critically hurt child was airlifted to a Texas hospital.

A third man died at a hospital in Amarillo, Texas, on Sunday night as a result of injuries suffered in the tornado, Woodward County Emergency Management Director Matt Lehenbauer said. Texas. Lehenbauer did not release the man's name or age.

"Our thoughts and prayers just go out to the families that have lost their loved ones, especially the children," said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who declared a state of emergency Sunday after touring the damage. "It's always devastating to hear about the loss of life of children."

The Red Cross set up a shelter at a church, but Lehenbauer said some people were sleeping in their yards because they couldn't afford hotels and were concerned about security.

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