Oklahoma towns hard hit by tornadoes begin long cleanup after 4 killed in weekend storms

Published 2:31 pm Monday, April 29, 2024

Powerful tornadoes that ripped through several Oklahoma communities over the weekend were particularly dangerous because they dropped from the sky after dark, catching residents off guard as the twisters tore through homes and businesses, uprooted trees and tossed vehicles.

The storms, part of an outbreak of severe weather across the middle of the U.S., began in Oklahoma late Saturday and killed four people, including an infant, and left at least 100 others injured, authorities said. The deadly weather in Oklahoma followed dozens of tornadoes that raked Iowa and Nebraska on Friday, killing one person.

At least 22 tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma, the most powerful of which ripped through Holdenville, Marietta and Sulphur, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Smith.

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Those tornadoes were rated as EF3 or higher, meaning they were powerful enough to uproot or snap large trees, remove roofs and knock down walls of well-built homes and easily toss cars and heavy vehicles. They were particularly dangerous because they hit after 10 p.m.

“It’s human nature to want to see the tornado before you take action,” Smith said. “And you’re not going to be able to see these tornadoes at night.”

In Sulphur, a town of about 5,000 people south of Oklahoma City, a tornado crumpled many downtown buildings, tossed cars and buses, and sheared the roofs off houses across a 15-block radius.

“We live less than a mile away, but last night it took us more than an hour to get here,” said Kathy John, the publisher of the local weekly newspaper, the Sulphur Times-Democrat, who spent Monday helping her staff move equipment from the downtown newsroom to her nearby home.

The paper hasn’t missed a printing in 82 years, she said, and “we’re not going to now.”

Hospitals across the state reported about 100 injuries, including people apparently cut or struck by debris, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. A baby was among those killed, Hughes County Emergency Management Director Mike Dockrey told Oklahoma television station KOCO.

White House officials said President Joe Biden spoke to Stitt on Sunday and offered the full support of the federal government.

In Sulphur, a 1930s natural springs fountain that is a centerpiece of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area continued to pump on Monday, but the landscape around it was devastated. Giant trees that shaded the park were uprooted and splintered, with branches scattered across the forest floor.

In town, the sound of chainsaws echoed through neighborhoods as residents cut up fallen trees that blocked entry to their homes. A creek that runs through the center of town was filled to its banks with muddy water churned up during the weekend storms. The area also was battered with heavy rain, and many residents spent the day Monday sifting through soggy belongings or pumping standing water from basements.

“How do you rebuild it? This is complete devastation,” said Kelly Trussell, a lifelong Sulphur resident as she surveyed the damage. “It is crazy, you want to help but where do you start?”

Carolyn Goodman traveled to Sulphur from nearby Ada in search of her former sister-in-law, who Goodman said was at a local bar just before the tornado hit. Gov. Kevin Stitt said one of the victims was found inside a bar, but authorities had not yet identified those killed.

“The bar was destroyed,” Goodman said. “I know they probably won’t find her alive … but I hope she is still alive.”

Farther north, a tornado near Holdenville killed two people and damaged or destroyed more than a dozen homes, according to the Hughes County Emergency Medical Service. Another person was killed along Interstate 35 near the southern Oklahoma community of Marietta, state officials said.

Stitt on Sunday declared a state of emergency in 12 counties due to the severe weather.

At the Sulphur High School gym, where families took cover from the storm, Jackalyn Wright said she and her family heard what sounded like a helicopter as the tornado touched down.

Chad Smith, 43, said people ran into the gym as the wind picked up. The rain started coming faster and the doors slammed shut. “Just give me a beer and a lawn chair and I will sit outside and watch it,” Smith said. Instead, he took cover.