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Five killed as tornadoes roar across Great Plains

Most areas get advance warning but sirens fail in some places, including an Oklahoma town that reported the only fatalities.

April 16, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Residents inspect the damage in Oaklawn, a suburb of Wichita, Kan., after tornadoes rumbled across the Midwest. The only deaths were reported in Woodward, Okla., where warning sirens failed to sound. Five people were killed.
Residents inspect the damage in Oaklawn, a suburb of Wichita, Kan., after… (Jeff Tuttle / Associated…)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everybody knew punishing twisters were about to pummel the Midwest. The National Weather Service had issued a warning a day in advance about a "high-end, life-threatening event" across the Great Plains.

But when the predictions came to pass late Saturday and early Sunday, some towns received little or no warning.

In the worst-hit community, Woodward, Okla., emergency sirens apparently were silenced by lightening and a tornado. Five people died. And in Creston, Iowa, sirens reportedly failed to sound, but officials didn't know why.

The only reported fatalities from the spate of twisters were in Woodward, where more than two dozen other people were injured, officials said.

Woodward Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the storm took out the tower that should have relayed a signal to the warning sirens. But considering that the death toll could have been higher, he credited divine intervention.

"We had the hand of God take care of us," Rutherford told the Associated Press.

Tornadoes swept across Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, the weather service said.

In Woodward, Greg Tomlyanobich took shelter in a cellar with his wife, grandson and about 20 other people as the tornado bore down in the darkness. "It scared the hell out of me," he told the Associated Press.

Video shot from helicopters in Sunday's daylight showed the aftermath: a 2-mile-long stretch of calamity that disintegrated homes in capricious bunches while leaving others unscathed. Three of the five dead were girls younger than 10, local media reported.

Woodward City Manager Alan Riffel told the Associated Press that 89 homes and 13 businesses had been destroyed.

Mayor Roscoe Hill visited the disaster zone Sunday afternoon, and then spoke with Oklahoma City's News 9.

"When I came in, people were saying, why can't we go in, why can't we go out?" he said. "It's something I've never had to deal with, and I never want to have to deal with again."

Elsewhere, at least two towns in Iowa were damaged.

In Creston, a twister damaged the hospital, a hospice and a community college Saturday night, the Des Moines Register reported. Six people were injured, including one found in a street and another in a yard — where, Police Chief Paul Ver Meer said, the twister had blown them.

Another tornado battered homes in the western Iowa town of Thurman, the Register said, but no serious injuries were reported.

A tornado also sliced through parts of Wichita, Kan., on Saturday, heralded by a dire weather service warning:

"This is a life-threatening situation. You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter. Complete destruction entire neighborhoods is likely. Many well-built homes and businesses will be completely swept from their foundations. Debris will block most roadways. Mass devastation is highly likely making the area unrecognizable to survivors."

The weather service is experimenting with more urgent language to grab residents' attention. The forecast proved a bit overblown, however.

One hundred mobile homes were damaged, according to Sedgwick County, Kan., spokeswoman Kristi Zukovich.

Well-built homes and businesses swept from their foundations? Not so much, Zukovich said. Some of the most significant damage came from collapsed roofs, not buildings scalped from their foundations. But debris did block roadways. Two homes were destroyed and about 20 were damaged, she said.

"I think we were very fortunate in comparison to what we've experienced from past tornadoes in this community," Zukovich said.

"Probably those past experiences and experiences in other communities have helped people to appreciate the warnings" and take cover, she said.

Wichita reported two injuries, and the rest of Kansas escaped Saturday's tornadoes without much harm. "Folks clearly listened to the warnings in the days ahead," Zukovich said.

But the effectiveness of the draconian warnings remains to be seen. The weather service's research has shown that some Midwesterners ignore warning sirens because they think tornadoes will never hit them. That happened last year in Joplin, Mo., where more than 150 people died.

The dangers of a tornado are great, but an individual's risk of being hurt by one is low, leading to complacency — a deeply ingrained reality reflected on Twitter.

"I've lived in OKC [Oklahoma City] for 53 years & never seen a tornado," @JeffinOKC tweeted on Sunday after the storms had passed. "I'm not special. Most of us haven't. They hit someone else. Hope they always do."

But Bob Force, who lives in the Wichita suburb of Oaklawn, knows what it's like to be in the cross hairs. Saturday night's twister was his fifth, and his home didn't survive it.

For a while, he didn't think he would either.

"I didn't think I was going to make it through this one," he told the Wichita Eagle. He hoisted a couch over himself for protection.

Elsewhere in Oaklawn, Ken Gardner was picking through the rubble in his father's backyard when he heard a weak mew. He pulled out a tiny tabby kitten, terrified but seemingly fine.

His father, Larry Gardner, said he didn't know where the kitten came from, much less how it wound up under the wreckage of his tool shed. But he'll keep it, he told the Eagle.

Its name? Twister.

Matt Pearce writes for The Times.

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