OKLAHOMA CITY » Emergency officials set out to assess damage from a series of violent storms and tornadoes that killed nine people as it swept through Oklahoma City and its suburbs with tornadoes, large hail and heavy rain. More than six dozen people were injured.
Muddy floodwaters stood several feet deep in the countryside surrounding the metro area today. Torrential downpours followed for hours after the twisters moved east, and water damage was reported at the city’s airport. The storms battered a state still reeling after the top-of-the-scale EF5 tornado that ripped through suburban Moore last month, killing 24 people and decimating neighborhoods.
Water surged hood-high on many streets, snarling traffic at the worst possible time: Friday’s evening commute. Even though several businesses closed early so employees could beat the storm home, highways were still clogged with motorists worried about a repeat of the chaos in Moore.
Bart Kuester, 50, a truck driver from Wisconsin, said he was driving along Interstate 35 past Moore when he realized a dangerous storm was approaching.
"I heard the sirens going off and I could see it coming," he said.
Kuester said the interstate was flooded and jammed with people trying to outrun the storm.
"Everyone was leaving. … Just because that one that hit Moore was so fresh in their memory," he said.
Though it was in the tornado warning zone, Moore was spared major damage by the storms, but still experienced heavy rain and high wind. A convention center where the town held its graduation in the days after the storm suffered minor flooding damage, officials said.
The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office said a man was missing from a vehicle near Harrah, east of Oklahoma City, and a pair of sinkholes were reported on each side of the metro area.
When the storm passed between El Reno and Yukon, it barreled right down Interstate 40 for more than two miles, ripping billboards down to twisted metal frames. Debris was tangled in the median’s crossover barriers, including huge pieces of sheet metal, tree limbs, metal pipes, a giant oil drum and a stretch of chain-link fence.
The warped remains of a horse trailer lay atop a barbed-wire fence less than 50 yards from the highway.
Violent weather also moved through the St. Louis area. Early aerial images of the storm’s damage showed groups of homes with porches ripped away, roofs torn off and piles of splintered wood scattered across the ground for blocks. Officials in St. Charles County also reported that local schools suffered some damage.
Among the nine dead in Oklahoma were a mother and a baby found in a vehicle. Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner, said Saturday the death toll was up to seven adults and two children. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported Saturday afternoon that 104 people were hurt.
Meteorologists had warned about particularly nasty weather Friday but said the storm’s fury didn’t match that of the tornado that struck Moore. The Friday storm, however, brought with it much more severe flooding. It dumped around 8 inches of rain on Oklahoma City in the span of a few hours and made the tornado difficult to spot for motorists trying to beat it home.
"Some tornadoes are wrapped in rain, so it’s basically impossible to see, which is extremely dangerous," said Bruce Thoren, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Norman. "Somebody driving along really not familiar with what’s going on can basically drive into it."
Emergency officials reported that numerous injuries occurred in the area along I-40, and said the storm’s victims were mostly in cars. Standing water was several feet deep, and in some places it looked more like a hurricane had passed through than a tornado. More than 86,000 utility customers were without power.
Among the injured was Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes, who suffered minor injuries when his "tornado hunt" SUV that he and two photographers were riding in was thrown 200 yards. The Weather Channel said all of the people in the vehicle were able to walk away, and that it was the first time a network personality was injured in a storm.
Will Rogers World Airport was slowly reopening Saturday and some flights were resuming. But the airport reported significant damage to the roof of the terminal, and flooding damage to walls, counters and floors.
In Missouri, the combination of high water and fallen power lines closed dozen of roads, snarling traffic on highways and side streets in the St. Louis area. At the Hollywood Casino in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, gamblers rushed from the floor as a storm blew through, causing minor damage to the building.
The U.S. averages more than 1,200 tornadoes a year and most are relatively small. Of the 60 EF5 tornadoes to hit since 1950, Oklahoma and Alabama have been hit the most — seven times each.
National Weather Service meteorologists said Saturday that it’s unclear how many tornadoes touched down as part of the Friday evening storm system. Dozens of tornado warnings were issued for central Oklahoma and parts of Missouri, especially near St. Louis, they said, but crews must assess the damage before determining whether it was caused by tornadoes or severe thunderstorms.
But one thing is certain: The chances for severe weather are on the decline as a cold front moves through the region, said weather service meteorologist Gene Hatch in Springfield, Mo.
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.
Associated Press writers Ken Miller and Tim Talley in Oklahoma City, Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa; Erica Hunzinger in Chicago; David Bauder in New York; Jeannie Nuss in Texarkana, Texas; and Jim Salter in Maryland Heights, Mo., and freelance photographer Nick Oxfrod in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.