Severe weather leaves 22 dead in Southeast
PICHER, Okla. ” Crews and search dogs hunted Sunday for survivors or bodies in piles of debris after tornadoes and storms rumbled across the region a day earlier and killed at least 22 people in three states.
Seven people died in Picher, once a bustling mining center of 20,000 that dwindled to about 800 people as families fled lead pollution here, and officials held out hope that they wouldn’t find any more bodies.
Residents said the tornado created a surreal scene as it tore through town Saturday afternoon, injuring 150 people, overturning cars, damaging dozens of homes and throwing mattresses and twisted metal high into the canopy of trees.
“I swear I could see cars floating,” said Herman Hernandez, 68. “And there was a roar, louder and louder.”
Ed Keheley was headed to town to help out Saturday night when he heard a woman screaming. He looked over to see her hand reaching out of debris.
“She was sitting in the bathtub, she had curlers in her hair and she wanted out of there,” said Keheley, who along with several others pulled her out.
The same storm system then moved into southwest Missouri, where tornadoes killed at least 14 others. The storms moved eastward; on Sunday, storms in Georgia killed at least one person.
In Seneca, Mo., about 20 miles southeast of Picher near the Oklahoma state line, crews on Sunday combed farm fields looking for bodies and survivors. Ten of the dead were killed when a twister struck near Seneca.
Nineteen people were hospitalized in Newton County, which includes Seneca, said Keith Stammer, acting spokesman the county emergency operations. He did not know the extent of their injuries.
Susie Stonner, a Missouri emergency management spokeswoman, said it was unclear how many homes were damaged or destroyed. But she said Newton County officials had initial estimates of 50 homes damaged or destroyed there.
Jane Lant was sorting through the debris of her bridal shop about 10 miles north of Seneca. A body wrapped in blue tarp lay next to the shop. Her husband’s feed store and a home across the road were also destroyed.
Lant said they were thankful the store had closed an hour before the twister hit.
“We would have had people in here at 6 when it hit,” she said.
In Picher, some homes were reduced to their foundations, others lost several walls. In one home, the tornado knocked down a bedroom wall, but left clothes hanging neatly in a closet.
“People were just wandering up and down the streets. Some had blood on them, some were dazed,” Keheley said.
A Best Western hotel sign was blown miles before coming to rest against a post. At one home, a basketball hoop planted in concrete had its metal support twisted so the rim hung only about 3 feet above ground.
Broken glass was strewn around the inside of 30-year-old Michael Richardson’s home, but a wrapped Mother’s Day gift and a laptop computer were left unscathed on the kitchen counter.
Frank Geasland, Ottawa County’s emergency manager said, a government-sponsored buyout of homes in the town left some residences vacant, and this may have prevented a greater loss of life.
The National Weather Service sent out a tornado warning at 5:26 p.m., 13 minutes before the tornado hit Picher, said David Jankowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Tulsa. Tornado sirens warned residents to take shelter.
The twister was the deadliest in Oklahoma since a May 3, 1999 twister that killed 44 people in the Oklahoma City area.
The National Weather Service estimated that at least eight tornadoes had been spawned in Oklahoma along six storm tracks. Three teams were dispatched to assess damage, meteorologist Steve Amburn said.
On Sunday, storms rumbled across Georgia, killing at least one person in Dublin, about a 121 miles southeast of Atlanta, authorities said. Weather officials had not yet confirmed whether the storms produced any tornadoes.
Georgia Power officials say at least 80,000 residents are without electricity across the state, mostly concentrated in the metro Atlanta area and the Macon area.
In storm-weary Arkansas, a tornado collapsed a home and a business, and there were reports of a few people trapped in buildings, said Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson.
Tornadoes killed 13 people in Arkansas on Feb. 5, and another seven were killed in an outbreak May 2. In between was freezing weather, persistent rain and river flooding that damaged homes and has slowed farmers in their planting.
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