OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Emergency officials were preparing to survey tornado damage Saturday morning following the second major fatal storm to strike the Oklahoma City metropolitan area in several days.
The storm toppled cars and left commuters trapped on an interstate highway as it bore down during Friday’s evening rush. Law enforcement officers and Red Cross damage assessment workers planned to head after dawn to areas in the city and its suburbs hit by what the National Weather Service reported were “several” tornadoes that rolled in from the prairie.
Five people were reported killed, including a mother and baby found in a vehicle. Amy Elliott, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner, said early Saturday that she had no immediate word of additional fatalities. About 50 people were hurt, five critically, hospital officials said.
Violent weather also moved through the St. Louis area, ripping part of the roof off a suburban casino.
Meteorologists had warned about particularly nasty weather Friday but said the storm’s fury didn’t match that of a top-of-the-scale EF5 tornado that struck suburban Moore, where a tornado killed 24 on May 20.
The Friday storm, however, brought with it far more severe flooding than that storm. It dumped around 7 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, said Bruce Thoren, a meteorologist with National Weather Service in Norman.
“Some tornadoes are wrapped in rain, so it’s basically impossible to see, which is extremely dangerous,” Thoren said. “Somebody driving along really not familiar with what’s going on can basically drive into it.”
The heavy rain and hail hampered rescue efforts in Oklahoma City. Frequent lightning roiled the skies well after the main threat had moved east. Highways and streets were clogged late into the night as motorists worked their way around flooded portions of the city.
Will Rogers World Airport said flights wouldn’t resume until morning, after debris was cleared from runways.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph said it’s not known if the woman was driving into the storm when it hit around 7 p.m. Friday near Union City, killing her and the infant. Another person died at El Reno, and the circumstances involving the other two deaths weren’t immediately known, Elliott said.
Emergency officials reported that numerous injuries occurred in the area along I-40, and Randolph said there were toppled and wrecked cars littering the area. Troopers requested a number of ambulances at I-40 near Yukon, west of Oklahoma City.
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.
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.
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 suburban of Maryland Heights, gamblers rushed from the floor as a storm blew out windows and tore off part of the roof.
Rich Gordon, of Jefferson City, said he was on the casino floor when he heard a loud “boom.”
“I didn’t know if it was lightning or what, but it was loud,” Gordon said.
In Oklahoma, storm chasers with cameras in their cars transmitted video showing a number of funnels dropping from the supercell thunderstorm as it passed south of El Reno and into Oklahoma City just south of downtown. Police urged motorists to leave I-40 and seek a safe place.
“I’m in a car running from the tornado,” said Amy Sharp, who last week pulled her fourth-grade daughter from the Plaza Towers Elementary School as a storm approached with 210 mph winds. “I’m in Norman and it just hit Yukon where I was staying” since last week’s storm.
“I’m with my children who wanted their mother out of that town,” Sharp said, her voice quivering with emotion.
At Will Rogers, passengers were directed into underground tunnels as the storm passed just north of the airfield. However, people near the area said they weren’t aware of any damage.
Television cameras showed debris falling from the sky west of Oklahoma City and power transformers being knocked out by high winds across a wider area.
As the storm bore down on suburban Oklahoma City, Adrian Lillard, 28, of The Village, went to the basement of her mother’s office building with a friend, her nieces, nephews and two dogs.
“My brother’s house was in Moore, so it makes you take more immediate action,” Lillard said while her young nieces played on a blanket on the floor of the parking garage. “We brought toys and snacks to try our best to keep them comfortable.”
Friday evening’s weather came after flash flooding and tornadoes killed three people in Arkansas late Thursday and early Friday. Three others were missing in floods that followed 6 inches of rain in the rugged Ouachita Mountains near Y City, 125 miles west of Little Rock.
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.