Storm-battered Oklahoma a 'war zone' after deadly twisters strike
Dawn revealed the destruction of a deadly swarm of twisters that struck shell-shocked Oklahoma late Friday amid new fears about "life-threatening" flash floods.
Five tornadoes — one a half-mile wide — ripped into the Oklahoma City area Friday evening, killing nine people and injuring scores more.
The Oklahoma Office of the Chief of Medical Examiner tells NBC News seven adults and two children are confirmed dead, including a mother and her small child. At least five people killed were in vehicles and may have been trying to flee as dark clouds gathered and warning sirens wailed, authorities said.
Marcus Jolly, 32, of El Reno told The Oklahoman newspaper the scene along Interstate 40 "was a war zone. There were semis turned over and skeletons of buildings remaining."
The twisters came just 11 days after a monster tornado left 24 dead in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, where power outages were reported Friday.
Mark Wiley, meteorologist at the National Weather Service's southern region headquarters in Fort Worth, said early Saturday that there had been five confirmed tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area on Friday and one in the Tulsa area early Saturday.
Hospitals in Oklahoma City reported 104 injuries, including five critical patients.
A total of 12 tornadoes hit Missouri and Illinois around St. Louis, where "numerous homes" were damaged. Wiley did not have any information about casualties there. Two twisters touched down briefly in North Dakota, but did not do any damage.
The Oklahoma City area "definitely" experienced the worst of the bad weather, Wiley said, with wind gusts of up to 90 mph, baseball-sized hail and extensive flooding.
"We have several reports of water going into homes and dozens of people having to be rescued on the streets, especially along Interstate-40," Wiley said. "It was not a good night to be in the Oklahoma City area."
For Saturday, Wiley said the storm was moving toward Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and East Texas, but did not "look as severe as yesterday."
There was "still a threat of large hail, damaging winds and flooding, but the tornado threat is lower today than it was yesterday," he said. The threat of a large tornado was "very small," he added.
The worry now turns to flash flooding. Wiley said about 6 to 8 inches of rain had fallen in 12 hours between 7 p.m. Friday and 7 a.m. CT Saturday.
Friday, the terror came from tornadoes boasting baseball-sized hail and winds so strong they tossed tractor-trailers off the interstate.
An SUV used by Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and a crew of storm trackers was thrown 200 yards by one tornado near Oklahoma City suburb El Reno. The vehicle tumbled about eight times and came to rest in a field, Bettes said. Some members of the crew suffered minor injuries, and the vehicle was destroyed.
"That was the scariest moment of my life," Bettes said. "I saw my life flash before my eyes."
4Warn Storm Team meteorologist Emily Sutton and 4Warn Storm Team storm chaser Kevin Josefy also had a close call with a tornado near El Reno, broadcasting live as they fled.
Later Sutton told NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City that they were driving near the twister when it started to turn.
"All of a sudden, we felt the wind behind us picking up, picking up," she said.
She said "chunks of trees" began falling "in front of our eyes." "I felt stuff hitting my back and I knew that's not right ... all I did was just say 'Oh my God,' and then we just kept our composure because you've got to keep moving on."
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph said the woman and baby were killed when the SUV they were in overturned on Interstate 40 between El Reno and Yukon.
One person was killed in Yukon and two others died elsewhere, KFOR reported, citing the state medical examiner's office. KFOR reported that all the victims were in vehicles.
Brooke Cayot, a spokeswoman for Integris Health, said 71 people were treated for injuries at the hospital system's facilities in the Oklahoma City area after the tornadoes struck.
Spokespeople for OU Medical Center, St. Anthony Hospital and Mercy Health Center said they had received a total of 27 patients. Of those, 10 were still being treated and 17 had been released.
Eric Ferguson, public information officer with the OU Medical Center, said four patients – two adults and two children – were in critical condition.
Many of the injured were hurt in accidents along Interstates 35 and 40 west of the city, where at least three semi-trailer rigs were overturned after the biggest tornado touched down near El Reno, authorities said.
Authorities said some of the worst damage on Friday was from flooding around El Reno and Yukon and the danger continued into Saturday.
The National Weather Service issued flash flood warnings for parts of Oklahoma early Saturday.
"At 2:21 a.m. CDT, National Weather Service radar and rain gauges indicated over six inches of rain has fallen across parts of Oklahoma and Canadian counties. Additional storms will move across these counties through the early morning with additional 1 to 2 inches of rain possible. Life-threatening flooding is already occurring and will continue for the next several hours," the weather service said.
There were also flash flood warnings in place for parts of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas.
On Friday, one tornado turned south from Oklahoma City and then toward the suburb of Moore, which was hit by a devastating twister on May 20 that killed 24 people and injured hundreds of others.
"I think we are still a little shaken by what happened in Moore. We are still burying children and victims, so our emotions are still strong," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett told Reuters.
More than 94,000 customers were without power in the metro area, according to the OG+E power company, including bout 12,000 customers in Moore.
Power company Ameren said there were 87,000 outages in Missouri and 30,000 in Illinois.
Interstates 35 and 40 were closed. "We've got a terrible situation going on," Trooper Randolph told NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City.
Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency.
"This has been a very large storm that hit a lot of communities," she told KFOR. She said she had heard from at least 30 fellow governors offering assistance.
At Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, where winds hit 71 mph, all flights were canceled and about 1,000 travelers were herded underground, where they were told to put their hands on their heads. The airport reopened Saturday morning, but all morning departures were canceled.
Tornado warnings — meaning a funnel cloud that could become a tornado had been spotted in the area — were in effect much of the day for numerous counties in Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Forecasters sounded the alarm that much of the Midwest — already pummeled by a week of tornadoes and flooded with drenching rains — was facing another round of violent weather overnight and into the weekend.
Observers at Tinker Air Force Base reported a tornado on the ground near the base southwest of Oklahoma City. In Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, a tornado touched down near Norman North High School and Norman Regional Hospital.
Buildings at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport were damaged by tornadoes with debris strewn across the runway. The airport was closed because of the damage, but re-opened just before midnight, the airport said in a statement.
Another tornado touched down Friday night 7 miles northeast of Moscow Mills, Mo., about 50 miles northwest of St. Louis. In St. Charles County, 24 houses were severely damaged or destroyed, said Mike O'Connell, communications director for the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
The National Weather Service evacuated its St. Louis office as tornado warnings were issued for north and northeastern St. Louis and surrounding counties.
Severe thunderstorm warnings, meanwhile, stretched from Minnesota and Michigan south to Arkansas. Forecasters said storms overnight could bring several more intense tornadoes, hail up to 4 inches in diameter and wind gusts approaching 80 mph.