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Five dead as tornadoes rip through Plains

May 11, 2010
  • A muddy kitten takes cover next to a tree on Monday after a tornado came through the mobile home community of Prairie Creek Village in Slaughterville, Okla., flattening several homes.
Associated Press,

SEMINOLE, Okla. (AP) -- Families picked through broken furniture and dented appliances outside their toppled homes Tuesday as garbage trucks scooped up soaking mattresses and other debris left over from violent storms that tore through the southern Plains, killing five people and injuring dozens.

Several tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma and Kansas as Monday's storms moved through the area, dumping hail as big as softballs, splintering homes and downing hundreds of power lines.

Oklahoma City Deputy Fire Chief Cecil Clay refused to rule out the possibility of finding more dead but said conditions were tough for rescue workers Tuesday.

"We have heavy fog (and) power lines down making it difficult to see all the hazards out there," he said.

The line of storms swept through Kansas and into Oklahoma Monday evening, leveling houses and flipping cars. Forecasters using advanced technology, fueled by supercomputers crunching atmospheric data, began predicting the severe weather last week.

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Two people were killed in Oklahoma City -- including a young boy hit by debris in his home and a man whose recreational vehicle flipped over on top of him -- and three in Cleveland County, south of the city, officials said. At least 58 others were injured -- two of them critically.

Near Seminole, about 60 miles east of Oklahoma City, at least two homes were leveled after a tornado tore through the area, Emergency Management Director Ernie Willis said. The town's airport suffered extensive damage and several planes were destroyed, he said.

On Tuesday, uprooted trees lay cracked in half, and the faint smell of cedar drifted through the air. Utility poles were down, lining parts of Oklahoma 99, and pickup trucks carted away damaged mattresses and other items.

Siblings Maria and Alejandro Martinez sifted through debris Tuesday at the site where their mobile home had stood. The storm had blown it off of its foundation and threw it 50 feet away, scattering their furniture, appliances and other household items around the yard.

Alejandro, 14, said the family was inside their home when it started moving Monday evening. They were thrown from the home and suffered cuts and bruises. Their father, who also was at home, had a broken arm, they said.

"It started shaking and the lights went out," Maria, 12, said.

Nearby, Yolanda Suarez and her relatives tried to salvage what they could from the wreckage. Appliances -- including a washer, dryer and refrigerator -- sat exposed on one of her mobile home after the storm tore off its roof and knocked down walls.

The only part of the home left standing was the bedroom Suarez hid in.

"She just ran into the room. She didn't want to leave. She thought it was more dangerous to leave than to stay inside," said her relative Victor Rodriguez.

Authorities urged residents to stay off the roads in affected areas to allow rescue workers to search for survivors among the wreckage of their homes. They said they didn't immediately know of anyone who was unaccounted for.

"I haven't heard of anybody in particular. They're just trying to make sure there's not anybody trapped or stuck in there," said Dan Cary, the emergency management director for Cleveland County.

In Norman -- Cleveland County's largest city with about 106,000 residents -- Tim Tegeler checked out the damage to his windows, air conditioner and fence at his home. Tegeler, his wife, their daughters and their pet fish had taken shelter in their laundry room until the storms passed.

"We saw it coming, but the best thing is my family's fine," Tegeler said.

More thunderstorms were expected Tuesday, but they were not predicted to be as severe, said meteorologist Ty Judd with the National Weather Service.

"We're not looking at what we saw yesterday," Judd said. He said a preliminary estimate counted 10 tornado touchdowns in Oklahoma Monday.

Gov. Brad Henry and U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and Mary Fallin were scheduled to tour damaged areas in central Oklahoma Tuesday afternoon.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric reported more than 17,000 customers remained without power Tuesday morning, down from more than 34,000 late Monday. American Electric Power reported about 1,500 outages, down from more than 2,500. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said rural electric cooperatives had about 30,000 outages.

In Kansas, the most serious damage was reported in Belmont, west of Wichita, where several homes were hit and there were widespread power outages. But no injuries were reported.

In Alfalfa County, Sheriff Charlie Tucker said baseball-sized hail broke the windshields of numerous cars and damaged homes.

"I came home once to look at my own personal vehicle and the windshield was all bashed out. The grandchildren's swing set was up and now it's gone, so there was straight-line winds that came through," Tucker said.

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