Major damage reported in suburb of Moore, including elementary school that took a direct hit.
A massive, mile-wide tornado spent 40 minutes on the ground as it devastated homes, schools and businesses across southern Oklahoma City and its suburbs Monday afternoon.
Police in Moore reported “major damage,” including an elementary school that took a direct hit and fires burning out of control. KFOR-TV reported that two elementary schools — Briarwood Elementary in Oklahoma City and Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore — were heavily damaged and possibly destroyed.
The National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said a tornado warning was in effect for 16 minutes before the twister developed.
Five separate tornado warnings — meaning twisters may be imminent — remained in effect in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.
Oklahoma authorities were still assessing damage but had no immediate reports of injuries or possible deaths, said Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
“Right now we really don’t have a good idea of the damage,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of footage on TV of widespread damage in Moore, Oklahoma, but it’s certainly too early to have any idea of the number of homes destroyed…. We know there are homes destroyed, businesses destroyed. … It’s very early.”
Earlier in the day, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri had been had been under a tornado watch, meaning that conditions were favorable for tornadoes to develop within the next few hours.
The National Weather Service said it was tracking “a large and extremely dangerous tornado” just west of Moore, Okla., which is south of Oklahoma City. The storm was moving to the northeast, and forecasters said they expected “large, destructive hail up to tennis ball size.”
Video aired by KFOR-TV showed a massive, dark funnel-shaped cloud over the area and, later, scenes of massive destruction. Entire neighborhoods were flattened.
Moore is the same community that was obliterated by a powerful tornado on May 3, 1999, killing 41 people, injuring hundreds, and causing about $1 billion in damages.
The five-state area is in the heart of a storm system hovering over the Plains and Midwest all the way to Minnesota.
On Sunday, a tornado packing winds as high as 200 mph, left two people dead in Oklahoma. Tornadoes and high winds injured more than 20 in the region.
The body of 79-year-old Glen Irish was found in an open area of the neighborhood after a twister slammed into Shawnee, Okla., leveling a mobile home park.
The Oklahoma medical examiner on Monday confirmed the second fatality, Billy Hutchinson, 76.
Both victims were from Shawnee, but it was not immediately clear if both lived in the Steelman Mobile Home Park, which was destroyed.
“You can see where there’s absolutely nothing, then there are places where you have mobile home frames on top of each other, debris piled up,” Pottawatomie County Sheriff Mike Booth said after surviving damage. “It looks like there’s been heavy equipment in there on a demolition tour.
“It’s pretty bad. It’s pretty much wiped out,” Booth said.
More than 60 million Americans are at risk of severe storms Monday, with the primary targets including Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center warned.
“Damaging wind gusts, large hail and tornadoes are possible in all areas,” Weather Channel meteorologist Kevin Roth said.
Oklahoma City, Tulsa, St. Louis, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Minneapolis are among the cities most at risk for severe weather Monday, AccuWeather meteorologist Meghan Evans said. Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and Indianapolis also are in the danger zone.
Sunday, there were 24 reports of tornadoes in five states, the Storm Prediction Center said. “In what has otherwise been a quiet spring for tornadoes, May 19 appeared to have been the second-most active day for tornadoes in the nation so far in 2013,” Weather Channel meteorologist Jon Erdman said.
So far this year — not including this most recent five-day outbreak — severe storms have caused $3.5 billion in economic losses in the USA, says meteorologist Steve Bowen of global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield. Bowen says. Of that $3.5 billion, at least $2 billion was covered by insurance.
“By the time the current storm system finally winds down by the middle of this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up as the costliest U.S. natural disaster event we’ve seen so far in 2013,” said meteorologist Steve Bowen of global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield.
“Recent full-year severe weather-related insured losses were roughly $27 billion in 2011 and $15 billion in 2012 – the two costliest years on record,” Bowen said. By this definition, “severe” weather means damage from thunderstorms or tornadoes, and does not include damage from hurricanes.
The storms in Oklahoma on Sunday that ripped off roofs and tossed big trucks like toys were part of a severe weather outbreak that stretched from Texas to Minnesota. Twisters were also reported Sunday in Iowa and Kansas.
The killer tornado that flattened portions of Shawnee, Okla., had wind speeds that were estimated as high as 200 mph, according to the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.
The NWS said preliminary information from a survey team indicated “EF4 damage” at the scene.
EF4 is the second-highest level on the Fujita Scale of Tornado Intensity. EF4 tornadoes have wind speeds that are estimated at between 166-200 mph.
Across Oklahoma, 21 people were injured, not including those who suffered bumps and bruises and chose not to visit a hospital, said Keli Cain, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Booth said six at Steelman Estates were hurt.
Gov. Mary Fallin declared an emergency for 16 Oklahoma counties.
Interstate 40 was closed by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol after winds overturned semi-tractor trailer trucks and other vehicles, Newsok.com reported.
KFOR-TV showed footage of homes damaged and cars and trucks flipped from highways near Shawnee. Other video showed flashes from electrical transformers blowing out as they were hit by high winds or debris from the tornado near Edmond.
A tornado touched down in Golden City, Mo., early Monday morning and tore through two counties, Barton County Emergency Management Director Tom Ryan told CNN. The number of injuries and extent of damage were not immediately clear.
Sedgwick County, Kan., emergency management director Randy Duncan said officials are grateful for few reports of damage from a tornado that touched down near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. He told CNN the area emerged “relatively unscathed.”
Forecasters had been warning for days that severe storms were likely across the region.
“I knew it was coming,” said Randy Grau, who huddled with his wife and two young boys in their Edmond’s home when a tornado hit. He said he peered out his window as the weather worsened and believed he saw a flock of birds heading down the street. “Then I realized it was swirling debris.”
In Iowa, a tornado touched down Sunday about 30 miles west of Des Moines near the town of Earlham, the Des Moines Register reported.
Meteorologist Kurt Kotenberg said a large low-pressure system is parking itself over the middle of the country and “really isn’t going to move much over the course of the next few days. … It’s basically going to keep pulling up that nice Gulf (of Mexico) moisture that keeps fueling everything.”
The threat of twisters comes less than a week after tornadoes left six dead, dozens injured and hundreds of homes destroyed in Texas and just shy of the two-year anniversary of the Joplin, Mo., twister.
Contributing: William M. Welch; The Des Moines Register; The Associated Press