In El Reno, a tornado 'looking at us dead in the eye'
POSTED: Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 8:00pm
UPDATED: Saturday, June 1, 2013 - 8:04pm
EL RENO, Oklahoma (CNN) — David Stottlemyre was inside an oil field repair shop in El Reno, Oklahoma, when he saw a tornado "looking at us dead in the eye."
The lifelong Oklahoman said he and two coworkers stayed inside as the building took a direct hit -- the roof collapsed and the structure blew apart. Though the three survived unscathed, "We're all pretty shook up," the oil field mechanic told CNN. "Surreal -- really no other way to explain it."
Friday evening's twisters killed at least nine people -- two of them children -- and injured scores more in Oklahoma, the office of the city's medical examiner said. Five victims had not been identified.
Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West said the seven fatalities in his county were inside vehicles.
A National Weather Service survey team found damage indicating an EF3 tornado had struck near El Reno, 25 miles west of Oklahoma City. EF3s pack gusts of 136 to 165 mph. The strongest tornado is an EF5.
It measured peak rainfall of 7.9 inches 45 miles west of Oklahoma City, outside Meeker.
The storms came less than two weeks after a monstrous EF5 tornado made rubble of the town of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
"There's just no rest," said city spokeswoman Kristy Yager.
In all, 17 tornadoes were reported in the Midwest. The number was expected to change when officials conduct storm surveys, said Kurt Van Speybroeck, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Nearly 200,000 customers were without power in the Midwest -- 80,000 in Missouri, 91,000 in Oklahoma, 12,000 in Illinois, 5,000 in Arkansas.
Three Oklahoma City-area medical facilities were running on generators Saturday, the health department said.
While the twisters damaged houses in Missouri and Illinois, the brunt of their force was reserved for Oklahoma City and its surrounding areas, including El Reno and Union City.
Among the dead were a mother and her child, officials said.
Oklahoma City-area hospitals treated 104 people for injuries related to the storm, the state health department said.
The storm system swatted down power lines and uprooted trees, flicked big rigs on their sides and yanked off part of the terminal roof at Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport, where some 1,500 area residents had taken shelter in a tunnel.
"We're just grateful we were able to get everybody down there," airport spokeswoman Karen Carney told CNN.
A power outage and debris on the runway had forced the airport to cancel all flights.
Winds of 80 mph damaged the roof and knocked out power, but the airport was not hit by a tornado.
Service resumed Saturday, when the lights flickered back on to reveal water damage to the walls, counters and floors, Carney said.
One twister tore open Kris Meritt's parents' brick house like a carton, sucking out its contents and tossing most of them onto the lawn.
It spared the walls and part of the roof, then moved on to raze the house next door.
The parents returned to survey the damage, but rushed off when another tornado was headed their way.
"It's a sombering thing to think about life, and to see all your memories just tossed about," Merritt said. "Everything from your childhood on up."
In Moore, the storms affected residents still picking up the pieces from the previous disaster.
"There's damage everywhere," Moore's Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
Most of his already devastated town was blacked out. The flooded streets made it hard for him to drive the town to search for new ruins among the old ones.
"I can't even get home to see if my house is OK," he said.
Though Friday's tornadoes were not as strong as the EF-5 twister that killed 24 people on May 20, fear drove some people into their cars to flee, ignoring warnings not to drive.
Officials described parts of Interstates 35 and 40 near Oklahoma City as "a parking lot."
"People were actually driving southbound in the northbound lanes to try and get out of the way," said storm chaser Dave Holder.
J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia, said Saturday that should not have occurred.
"We knew well in advance these storms were going to be quite dangerous," he told CNN. "The weather service was crystal clear -- to stay off the roads after 4 p.m. yesterday."
He noted that central Oklahoma "is right in the sweet spot for tornadoes around May 20 through the end of May."
Once the tornadoes had passed, Oklahomans faced a new threat: floods.
Eight to 11 inches of rain hosed Oklahoma City, drenching the area, Yager said.
An inch of water pooled on the first floor of City Hall, and apartments in low-lying areas of town were hit harder.
"We've seen widespread flooding throughout the entire 621 square miles," she said.
Flooding stranded some motorists.
"We saw flooding in areas that we don't see flooding," said police Lt. Jay Barnett. "We were overwhelmed."
He also cited "some very significant wind damage, both from straight-line winds and possibly from some tornado touchdowns in the Oklahoma City area." The city had one confirmed fatality, he said.
The impact of the tornadoes spread beyond Oklahoma. More than 212,000 customers were without power across the Midwest early Saturday.
In Illinois, the roof flew off a school gymnasium in Macoupin County. About 25 to 30 homes were damaged, officials said.
In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, as the storm front moved into his state, stripping sidings and roofs off homes.
Portions of more than 200 roads in the state were closed due to flooding, the state transportation department said.
Outside St. Louis, in St. Charles County, some homes were demolished. Aerial video from CNN affiliate KMOV showed the second floors of several homes ripped apart, with houses to the front and behind still standing. In one home, a man walked across the exposed second floor -- walls and roof gone -- at one point picking up what appeared to be a picture as he negotiated debris on all sides. Nearby, shirts still hung on one side of what used to be a closet.
Also damaged was the 10,000-seat Family Arena in St. Charles, county spokesman Colene McEntee told CNN. The damage led three high schools in the Francis Howell school district to cancel graduation ceremonies that had been scheduled for Saturday, CNN affiliate KSDK reported.
More than 9,000 customers in that county alone were without power Saturday, she said. No serious injuries were reported.
And Lambert-St. Louis International Airport was closed for four hours so that debris could be removed from the runway. It reopened early Saturday.
In Moore, the howls of civil defense sirens sent storm-weary residents scrambling again.
Candace Looper retreated to her windowless laundry room with her cat and stacked couch pillows on top of her.
"I've been praying, and I've been singing 'The Lord's Prayer' and singing 'Amazing Grace,' so I'm OK," she told CNN.
LaDonna Cobb and her husband, Steve, were with their children at their school on May 20 when a tornado demolished the building.
A photograph of Steve Cobb carrying one of their daughters with his wife looking to him with blood on her face emerged as a symbol of Moore's suffering and resilience.
Friday's tornadoes drove them into a shelter and put fear into their hearts again.
"We're terrified," Cobb told CNN's Piers Morgan.
The second tornado was particular unsettling for their children.
"They were not handling it very well. They were pretty upset," Cobb said.
Once it passed, Lewis, the city mayor, rode around town in his pickup.
"This is unbelievable that it could possibly even hit again," he said. "We just started picking up (debris) two days ago."
CNN's Nick Valencia reported from El Reno, Oklahoma; George Howell reported from Union City, Oklahoma; and Holly Yan from Atlanta. Jason Hanna, Ben Brumfield and Tom Watkins reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Jake Carpenter, Carma Hassan, Joe Sutton, Jennifer Feldman, Chandler Friedman and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.