Oklahoma Town Surveying Damage After Twisters Kill 8

February 12, 2009

Insurers such as Zurich and Farmers have announced they are sending catastrophe response teams to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, areas pummeled by severe weather earlier this week. Especially hard hit by a cluster of tornados on Feb. 10 was Lone Grove, Okla., where at least eight people were killed and 14 seriously injured.

Residents of Lone Grove are now confronting the wreckage of homes and businesses. Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said the National Guard was sent on Feb. 11 to help local authorities.

“We will do everything we can to get Oklahomans the assistance they need,” Gov. Brad Henry said.

Buildings were damaged or destroyed throughout the town of about 4,600, some 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, said Chester Agan, assistant emergency manager for Carter County.

However, much of the most severe damage appeared to be centered in two mobile home parks that were “pretty much wiped out,” said Dave Smith, a paramedic who helped in the first emergency response.

The eight confirmed deaths included seven people in Lone Grove and a truck driver who was driving through the area, said Robert Deaton, interim chief investigator for state Medical Examiner’s office.

“It was pretty devastating,” said Lone Grove resident Joe Hornback, 42, whose home is a few blocks from a post office that lost its roof in the storm.

“We were very fortunate,” he said. “We went into the only cellar on our block. There were 30 of us in a 6 by 6 underground cellar.”

He said there was a calm before the tornado hit. “Then you just heard the wind blow, just like you turned the light switch on,” Hornback said.

A twister also damaged homes and businesses in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, but only three minor injuries were reported. Another tornado was reported in north-central Oklahoma and six homes were destroyed near the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.

Meteorologists were to survey the damage Wednesday, said Doug Speheger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman.

“We don’t really have any indication of how a strong a tornado the Lone Grove one was,” Speheger said.

In Edmond, a body shop and the vehicles inside were twisted into a ball of metal.

“It’s just surreal,” shop manager Michael Jerry said. “You just don’t believe it. Especially knowing you were just there minutes before. The steel girders are in a ball.”

The tornado in northwest Oklahoma City apparently developed near Wiley Post Airport and then headed northeast, damaging several shopping centers and restaurants at a major intersection. One wall of a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant collapsed, windows were blown out, and cars were damaged in a parking lot.

That twister then moved through the Boulder Ridge Apartments, a spread of two-story units surrounding a courtyard.

Shawn Tiesman, 33, moved to the complex from Iowa about four months ago and got his first taste of Oklahoma’s notorious weather but without the same protection of his former home.

“Where I’m from, we’ve got basements,” Tiesman said. “I’m amazed that there’s no basements here.”

He invited his upstairs neighbors into his apartment and then used his futon mattress to barricade them into a walk-in closet.

While they were in the closet, a large section of roof was blown off one of the complex’s apartment buildings and part of a wall was blown off another. One apartment had a gaping hole knocked in its side. Parked cars were smashed into each other.

Tornado sirens were sounded in the area but some residents were still caught off guard.
“I can’t believe we didn’t hear it,” said Traci Keil, 37.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric reported about 8,900 customers without power, nearly 3,500 in Lone Grove, according to its Web site.

Tornado strikes in Oklahoma are most frequent in the spring, but can occur at any time, weather service meteorologist Rick Smith said.

Since 1950 the state has been struck by 44 February tornadoes, said Speheger at the weather service. The most recent one before Tuesday’s spurt occurred Feb. 24, 2000, damaging a barn and power lines in Ellis and Harper counties in western Oklahoma.

Outside Oklahoma, however, Speheger said an outbreak of twisters on Feb. 5, 2008, killed more than 50 people in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, wind of more than 60 mph caused dust storms in western Texas that reduced visibility so much some roads were closed. The weather service reported wind speeds reached 88 mph in parts of Texas, downing trees and power outages late Tuesday.

Emergency responders in Texas said they would have to wait until Wednesday to assess damage.

In the closing minutes of the Dallas Mavericks game Tuesday night, announcers suggested that fans stay in the building while the storms were passing through the downtown area.

An empty 18-wheeler was flipped over by wind gusts as high as 70 mph in Bruceville-Eddy, a town of about 1,100 people nearly 106 miles south of Dallas.

“He was driving down the road and a gust of wind blew him over,” Bruceville-Eddy Fire Chief Randall Sevey told The Associated Press. “He was just shook up.”

Associated Press writer Andre Coe contributed to this report in Dallas.

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