OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Tornadoes rolled in from the prairie and slammed Oklahoma City and its suburbs on Friday, crumbling cars and tractor-trailers along a major interstate and leading to numerous injuries.
The broad storm hit during the evening rush hour, causing havoc on Interstate 40, a major artery connecting suburbs east and west of the city. To the south, winds approaching 80 mph were forecast for Moore, where a top-of-the-scale EF5 tornado killed 24 on May 20.
Floodwaters collected in streets. Troopers requested a number of ambulances at I-40 near Yukon, west of Oklahoma City.
“I’m in a car running from the tornado,” said Amy Sharp, who last week pulled her fourth-grade daughter from the Plaza Towers Elementary School as a storm approached with 210 mph winds. “I’m in Norman and it just hit Yukon where I was staying” since last week’s storm.
“I’m with my children who wanted their mother out of that town,” Sharp said, her voice quivering with emotion.
Hail and heavy rain pelted the metro area to the point that emergency workers had trouble responding to “widespread” reports of injuries.
“We’re scrambling around,” said Lara O’Leary, a spokeswoman for the local ambulance agency. “There is very low visibility with the heavy rain … so we’re having trouble getting around.
“The damage is very, very widespread.”
Tornado warnings were also posted Friday night near Tulsa and near St. Louis.
In Oklahoma, storm chasers with cameras in their cars transmitted video showing a number of funnels dropping from the supercell thunderstorm as it passed south of El Reno and into Oklahoma City just south of downtown. Police urged motorists to leave I-40 and seek a safe place.
Medical facilities in Yukon and Oklahoma City were preparing for a major flood of patients. “They just sent a code yellow, which means an influx of patients is expected,” said Integris spokeswoman Brooke Cayot.
At Will Rogers World Airport southwest of Oklahoma City, passengers were directed into underground tunnels and inbound and outbound flights were canceled.
Television cameras showed debris falling from the sky and power transformers being knocked out by high winds.
The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said a number of motorists were injured and that a few were missing. Numerous vehicles were damaged, leaving motorists stranded on the sides of roads, Trooper Betsy Randolph said.
As the storm bore down on suburban Oklahoma City, Adrian Lillard, 28, of The Village, went to the basement of her mother’s office building with a friend, her nieces, nephews and two dogs.
“My brother’s house was in Moore, so it makes you take more immediate action,” Lillard said while her young nieces played on a blanket on the floor of the parking garage. “We brought toys and snacks to try our best to keep them comfortable.”
Well before Oklahoma’s first thunderstorms fired up at late afternoon, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman was already forecasting a violent evening. From the Texas border to near Joplin, Mo., residents were told to keep an eye to the sky and an ear out for sirens.
Forecasters warned of a “particularly dangerous situation,” with ominous language about strong tornadoes and hail the size of grapefruits – 4 inches in diameter.
Flash flooding and tornadoes killed three people in Arkansas late Thursday and early Friday. Three others were missing in floods that followed 6 inches of rain in the rugged Ouachita Mountains near Y City, 125 miles west of Little Rock.
The Fourche La Fave River rose 24 feet overnight, temporarily swamping the U.S. 71 bridge in Scott County.
“The water just comes off that hill like someone is pouring a bucket in there,” said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation.
Scott County Sheriff Cody Carpenter died while trying to check on local residents during the storm and wildlife officer Joel Campora and two others are missing. They had traveled up Mill Creek by boat.
“Other deputies heard a loud crash,” said Bill Hollenbeck, the sheriff of neighboring Sebastian County. “They thought that the bridge had actually collapsed. Looking into it further, the house had imploded as a directly result of rising waters from Mill Creek.”
A man died after strong winds toppled a tree onto his car in Tull, just west of Little Rock, late Thursday. Authorities also are attributing the death of a woman in Scott County to flooding. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe declared six counties as disaster areas.
This spring’s tornado season got a late start, with unusually cool weather keeping funnel clouds at bay until mid-May. The season usually starts in March and then ramps up for the next couple of months.
Most tornadoes in the United States are relatively small. Of the 60 EF5 tornadoes to hit since 1950, Oklahoma and Alabama have been hit the most – seven times each.
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