WOODWARD, Okla. — The television was on and tuned to forecasters’ dire warnings of an impending storm when Greg Tomlyanobich heard a short burst from a tornado siren blare after midnight. Then silence. Then rumbling.
The 52-year-old quickly grabbed his wife and grandson, hurrying them into the emergency cellar as debris whirled around their heads at their mobile home park in northwest Oklahoma. They huddled inside with about 20 other people before the tornado — among more than 100 reported to have swept across the nation’s midsection during the weekend — roared across the ground above, ripping homes from their foundations.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Tomlyanobich said.
The storm killed five people, including three children, and injured more than two dozen others in Woodward, a town about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. But it was the only tornado that caused fatalities. Many of the touchdowns raked harmlessly across isolated stretches of rural Kansas, and though communities in Iowa and Kansas were hit, residents and officials credited days of urgent warnings from forecasters for saving lives.
When Tomlyanobich emerged from the underground shelter after the storm had subsided, he saw a scattered trail of destruction: home insulation, siding and splintered wood where homes once stood; trees stripped of leaves, clothing and metal precariously hanging from limbs.
“It just makes you sick to your stomach. Just look at that mangled steel,” he said Sunday, pointing to what appeared to be a giant twisted steel frame that had landed in the middle of the mobile home park, which is surrounded by rural land dotted with oil field equipment.
The storms were part of an exceptionally strong system that the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting, had warned about for days. The center took the unusual step of warning people more than 24 hours in advance of a possible “high-end, life-threatening event.”
The storm system was weakening as it crawled east and additional tornadoes were unlikely, according to the National Weather Service, thought forecasters warned that strong thunderstorms could be expected as far east as Michigan.
Woodward suffered the worst of the destruction from the storms, which also struck in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. Bloodied survivors in the 12,000-resident town emerged to find flipped cars, smashed trailers and mangled power lines. Streets were left dotted with mangled vehicles, toppled power lines and leveled buildings.
City Manager Alan Riffel says 89 homes and 13 businesses were destroyed.
Retired firefighter Marty Logan said he spotted the tornado when it knocked down power lines, causing flashes of light, and saw a radio tower’s blinking lights go black. He later saw a man emerge from a twisted, wrecked sport utility vehicle that had been tossed along the side of the road.
“The guy had blood coming down his face,” Logan said. “It was scary, because I knew it was after midnight and a lot of people were in bed.”
The state medical examiner’s office identified the victims as Frank Hobie and his 5- and 7-year-old daughters, who died when the tornado hit their home in the mobile home park, and Darren Juul and a 10-year-old girl who died when the home they were in a few miles away was hit. Office spokeswoman Amy Elliot said no other details were immediately available.
Elliot said another child was critically injured in the mobile home park and was air lifted to a Texas hospital.
Authorities said a signal tower for Woodward’s tornado sirens was struck by lightning and hit by a tornado early Sunday morning. Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the tower that was supposed to send a repeating signal to the town’s tornado siren system was knocked out.
Considering the tornado struck at night and the sirens were damaged, Rutherford said, it’s remarkable that there wasn’t a greater loss of life. “We had the hand of God take care of us,” he said.
In the tiny western Iowa town of Thurman, piles of toppled trees lined the streets in front of homes where missing walls and roofs exposed soaked living rooms. Longtime resident Ted Stafford recalled feeling his home shake, then hearing three windows shatter as the storm hit. He was amazed that no one in town was seriously injured.
“We’re all OK, fortunately. Nobody’s hurt. We can fuel this recovery with beans and coffee,” the 54-year-old said while standing on the broken concrete of what had been his home’s new basement foundation.
A reported tornado in Wichita damaged McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants late Saturday. A mobile home park was heavily damaged in the city, and Wichita’s surrounding county was declared a disaster area with preliminary estimates suggesting damages that could be as high as $283 million.
In an interview with CNN, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback acknowledged that the damage could have been far worse, noting that residents appeared to have heeded warnings to get to safety. “God was merciful,” he said.
Yvonne Tucker rushed to a shelter with about 60 of her neighbors at Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Wichita. She said people were crying and screaming, and the shelter’s lights went out when the twister hit. When they came back outside, they found several homes destroyed, including Tucker’s.
“I didn’t think it was that bad until I walked down my street and everything is gone,” said Tucker, 49. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go. I’ve seen it on TV, but when it happens to you it is unreal.
“I just feel lost.”
A hospital in Creston, about 75 miles southwest of Des Moines, suffered roof damage and had some of its windows blown out by the storm, but patients and staff were not hurt.
Kristin Dean, who was also among the Wichita mobile home residents taking shelter from the storm, said she was shaking as she was being pushed from home in her wheelchair. She was able to grab a bag of her possessions before going into the shelter, but that was all she had left. Her home was gone.
“It got still,” the 37-year-old woman, who is in a wheelchair after hurting her leg a month ago, recalled. “Then we heard a wham, things flying. Everybody screamed, huddling together.
“It is devastating, but you know, we are alive.”