WOODWARD, Okla. (AP) — The television was tuned to forecasters' warnings of an impending storm when Greg Tomlyanobich heard a short burst from a tornado siren blare after midnight Sunday. Then came the silence. Then the rumbling.
Tomlyanobich, 52, grabbed his wife and grandson, hurrying them into the emergency cellar as debris whirled around their heads at their mobile home park in northwest Oklahoma. They huddled inside with about 20 other people before the tornado — among dozens that swept across the nation's midsection during the weekend — roared across the ground above, ripping homes from their foundations.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Tomlyanobich said.
The storm killed five people, including three children, and injured more than two dozen in Woodward, a town about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. But it was the only tornado that caused fatalities. Many of the touchdowns raked harmlessly across isolated stretches of rural Kansas, and though communities there and in Iowa were hit, residents and officials credited days of urgent warnings from forecasters for saving lives.
When Tomlyanobich emerged from the underground shelter after the storm subsided, he saw a scattered trail of destruction: home insulation, siding and splintered wood where homes once stood; trees stripped of leaves and with clothing and metal precariously hanging from limbs.
“It just makes you sick to your stomach. Just look at that mangled steel,” he said Sunday, pointing to what appeared to be a giant twisted steel frame that had landed in the middle of the mobile home park, which is surrounded by rural land dotted with oil field equipment.
Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the weather service received at least 120 reports of tornadoes by dawn Sunday and was working to confirm how many actually touched down.
The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office identified the tornado victims as Frank Hobbie and his 5-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, who died when the tornado hit the mobile home park, and Darren Juul and a 10-year-old girl who died when the home they were in a few miles away was hit. Office spokeswoman Amy Elliot said a critically injured child was airlifted to a Texas hospital.
Authorities said a signal tower for Woodward's tornado sirens was struck by lightning and hit by a tornado early Sunday morning. Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the tower that was supposed to send a repeating signal to the town's tornado siren system was knocked out.
Considering that the tornado struck at night and the sirens were damaged, it was remarkable that there wasn't a greater loss of life, Rutherford said. “We had the hand of God take care of us,” he said.
Frank and Treva Owens knew dangerous storms were moving toward Woodward, and although they didn't hear sirens, the elderly couple were watching TV weather reports all day.
“I heard them say we had nine minutes and that's when I hit the cellar,” Frank Owens said, noting that the 12-by-12-foot shelter was prepped with their medications, food and clothing.
In Kansas, a reported tornado damaged McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants in Wichita late Saturday. Preliminary estimates suggest that damage could amount to as much as $283 million in the area, where the storm also toppled a 65-foot Ferris wheel at a local amusement park.
Yvonne Tucker rushed to a shelter with about 60 of her neighbors at Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Wichita. She said people were crying and screaming, and the shelter's lights went out when the twister hit. When they went back outside, they found several homes destroyed, including Tucker's.
“I didn't think it was that bad until I walked down my street and everything is gone,” Tucker said. “I don't know what to do.”
Fellow mobile home resident Kristin Dean, who was pushed out of her home in a wheelchair, grabbed some possessions before going into the shelter, and she later learned that was all she had left. Her home was gone.
“It got still,” she said. “Then we heard a ‘wham,' things flying. Everybody screamed, huddling together. It is devastating, but you know, we are alive.”
Forecasters issued their first warning on Friday, predicting a tornado outbreak that had the potential of being a “high-end, life-threatening event” for a swath of the Midwest.
Sharon Watson of the Kansas Adjutant General's Department said that “the language that was being used appeared to make people pay more attention.”
Officials said the enhanced language was developed because of the large number of deaths from tornadoes across the country.
“This is one of the lessons learned from the various deadly outbreaks of tornadoes last year,” said Vaccaro of the National Weather Service. The system will be tested for another six months before weather service officials decide whether to continue or expand it.
This report includes material from the New York Times.
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