Severe weather outbreak across the Midwest and Plains

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by ROXANA HEGEMAN

Associated Press

Posted on April 14, 2012 at 7:57 AM

Updated Sunday, Apr 15 at 6:43 AM

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Tornadoes were spotted across the Midwest and Plains on Saturday as an outbreak of unusually strong weather struck, and forecasters warned that severe storms could possibly continue in the region the rest of the weekend.

Storms were reported in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma throughout the day and night Saturday and into Sunday. They included a reported tornado in Wichita, Kan., that caused damage at an Air Force base, aircraft manufacturing plant and other facilities. A mobile home park was heavily damaged in the city, although no injuries or deaths were reported.

Yvonne Tucker rushed to a shelter with about 60 of her neighbors at Pinaire Mobile Home Park. She said people were crying and screaming, and the shelter's lights went out when the twister hit. When they came back outside, they found several homes destroyed, including Tucker's.

"I didn't think it was that bad until I walked down my street and everything is gone," said Tucker, 49. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where to go. I've seen it on TV, but when it happens to you it is unreal.

"I just feel lost."

National Weather Service forecasters issued sobering outlooks that the worst of the weather would hit around nightfall, predicting that conditions were right for exceptionally strong tornadoes. Weather officials and emergency management officials worried most about what would happen if strong storms hit when people were sleeping, not paying attention to weather reports and unlikely to hear warning sirens.

When it's dark, it's also more difficult for weather spotters to clearly see funnel clouds or tornadoes.

In Oklahoma, several people were reported injured and homes and businesses damaged when a tornado touched down in the late hours in Woodward. The National Weather Service reported a tornado about 12:20 a.m. Sunday in the northwest Oklahoma city of about 12,000.

Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said emergency responders reported several injuries, but she didn't know how serious they were. Cain said homes had been damaged, and search and rescue efforts were under way.

Iowa emergency officials said a large part of the town of Thurman in the western part of the state was destroyed Saturday night, possibly by a tornado, but no one was injured or killed. Fremont County Emergency Management Director Mike Crecelius said about 75 percent of the 250-person town was destroyed. Some residents took refuge at the City Hall.

A hospital in Creston, about 75 miles southwest of Des Moines, suffered roof damage and had some of its windows blown out by the storm, but patients and staff were not hurt. Medical center officials were calling other area hospitals to determine how many beds they had available in case they needed to move patients.

In Nebraska, baseball-sized hail shattered windows and tore siding from houses in and around Petersburg, about 140 miles northwest of Omaha. In southeast Nebraska, an apparent tornado took down barns, large trees and some small rural structures. Johnson County emergency director Clint Strayhorn said he was trying to determine the twister's duration and the damage it caused.

"I'm on a 2-mile stretch that this thing is on the ground and I haven't even gotten to the end of it yet," he said, walking the path of destruction near the Johnson-Nemaha county line. He didn't immediately know of any injuries.

At least 10 tornadoes were reported in Kansas, mostly in rural parts of the western and central sections of the state. A suspected tornado narrowly avoided Salina, meteorologists said. Another was on the ground for about a half-hour north of Dodge City.

In Wichita, the reported tornado that struck caused damage at McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants. Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, declared a state of disaster and said preliminary estimates suggest damages could be as high as $283 million.

Kristin Dean, who was among the Wichita mobile home residents taking shelter during the storm, said she was shaking as she was being pushed from home in her wheelchair. She was able to grab a bag of her possessions before going into the shelter and that was all she had left. She lost her mobile home, and the windows in her car shattered.

"It got still," the 37-year-old woman, who's in a wheelchair after hurting her leg a month ago, recalled of the scene inside the shelter. "Then we heard a wham, things flying. Everybody screamed, huddling together.

"It is devastating, but you know we are alive."

Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson said Rice County was the only other Kansas county to issue a disaster declaration. Several buildings in the county were damaged, including the one housing the sheriff's department and jail. Inmates were transferred to another facility because of the damage.

Homes were damaged or destroyed in 10 other Kansas counties, Watson said.

Warnings for more serious storms continued. Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the Storm Prediction Center, said severe weather is possible Sunday "from east Texas and Arkansas and up into the Great Lakes."

"The threat isn't over with tonight, unfortunately," he said Saturday.

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Associated Press reporters Grant Schulte and Timberly Ross in Omaha, Neb.; David Pitt in Osceola, Iowa; Sean Murphy and Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.; Erin Gartner in Chicago; and Ed Donahue in Washington contributed to this report.

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