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Like a Broken Record, Tornadoes Keep Striking Midsection

May 11, 2003|From Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was the most active week of tornadoes on record as scores of twisters ripped across the nation's midsection, reducing hundreds of homes and businesses to splinters and piles of loose bricks, meteorologists said Saturday.

The tornadoes combined with lightning and floods to cause 44 deaths from Kansas to Georgia.

"We just don't have a down day; that's what's been very unusual," said Rich Thompson, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. "It just doesn't seem to stop."

Storms pelted several states on Saturday, although they weren't as severe as some of the earlier turbulent weather.

A system in Missouri spawned tornadoes that damaged outbuildings, overturned cars and downed power lines. The worst damage appeared to be in the town of Canton, about 150 miles northwest of St. Louis, where officials said early reports indicated 20 to 30 houses and 10 mobile homes were damaged. No deaths were reported.

Mayor Terry Fretwell told KMOV-TV in St. Louis that the fieldhouse at Culver-Stockton College and a grocery store were destroyed and a motel suffered major damage.

At least one tornado touched down in Indiana. Torrential downpours flooded streets and fields and forced the postponement of Saturday's qualification for the Indianapolis 500.

In Kentucky, 10 people were injured after a storm swept through the northeastern part of the state. The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado in the area.

More than 100 people were injured in the Oklahoma City area by two tornadoes that struck Thursday and Friday night. One remained in critical condition Saturday.

The twister that struck the Oklahoma City area late Friday approached from the southwest, then skipped through the city, snapping utility poles, flipping a light airplane parked at Wiley Post Airport and ripping apart an elementary school.

President Bush issued a disaster declaration Saturday for Oklahoma, clearing the way for federal aid. Earlier in the week, he did the same for tornado- battered parts of Tennessee, Kansas and Missouri.

More than 300 homes and 35 businesses were destroyed in Oklahoma alone and the state insurance commissioner's office gave a preliminary damage estimate of $100 million. Utility crews strung new power lines in an effort to restore electrical service to more than 10,000 homes and businesses.

While tornadoes are common in May, the number of them reported in the first part of this month has been extraordinary, said Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center.

By Saturday, about 300 tornadoes had been reported since the start of May, about 100 more than the most recent comparable rash, in 1999. That 1999 barrage had been the record for any 10-day period since record-keeping started in the 1950s, said Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center.

About 70% of all tornadoes are reported in April, May and June.

"What is happening this week is that we have a persistent warm air mass in place and a persistent jet stream extending from the southwestern United States into the central Plains," McCarthy said.

Those conditions were ripe for producing thunderstorms, which can rotate and form tornadoes.

Changing weather conditions were expected to reduce the risk beginning today.

Because of the tornadoes and other emergencies this year, the American Red Cross said Friday that its disaster relief fund, which typically has a $50-million cushion, had dwindled to just $5 million. Executive Vice President Terry J. Sicilia said the costs of the tornadoes could deplete the fund entirely if more donations don't come in soon.

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