EL RENO, Okla. – Violent thunderstorms roared across middle America on Tuesday, killing seven people in two states, with several tornadoes touching down in Oklahoma and high winds pounding rural Kansas.
The high-powered storms arrived as forecast, just two days after a massive tornado tore through the southwest Missouri town of Joplin and killed 122 people. The National Weather Service announced Tuesday that the twister that crippled Joplin was an EF-5, the strongest rating assigned to tornadoes, with winds of more than 200 mph. Scientists said it appeared to be a rare “multivortex” tornado, with two or more small and intense centers of rotation orbiting the larger funnel.
It was the deadliest single twister since the weather service began keeping official records in 1950 and the eighth-deadliest in U.S. history.
On Tuesday, several tornadoes struck Oklahoma City and its suburbs during rush hour, killing at least five people and injuring at least 60 others, including three children who were in critical condition, authorities said.
Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner, said four people died west of Oklahoma City in Canadian County, where a weather-monitoring site in El Reno recorded 151 mph winds. She did not have any immediate details about the deaths.
At Chickasha, 25 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, a 26-year-old woman died when a tornado hit a mobile home park where residents had been asked to evacuate their trailers, Assistant Police Chief Elip Moore said. He said a dozen people were injured and that hundreds were displaced when the storm splintered their homes.
In Kansas, police said two people died when high winds threw a tree into their van around 6 p.m. near the small town of St. John, about 100 miles west of Wichita. The highway was shut down because of storm damage.
More severe weather occurred after nightfall as the storms continued east, but none with the power of the daytime storms. Their path included Joplin.
“Unfortunately, this event will likely continue for some time,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said. “I am asking all Oklahomans to stay aware of the weather and to take proper precautions to keep themselves out of harm’s way.”
The Storm Prediction Center had warned since the weekend that strong, long-lived tornadoes could hit Oklahoma and adjacent parts of Kansas and Texas. The storm that killed four west of Oklahoma City later moved to the capital’s northern suburbs and on toward Stillwater – covering a distance of about 80 miles.
“We knew for the last two days that we had an opportunity for long-tracking tornadoes, and unfortunately that came true today,” said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
Storms that formed near Chickasha even forced the staff of the Storm Prediction Center to take shelter at their Norman headquarters for a time Tuesday, spokeswoman Keli Tarp said.
Ooten said at least 60 people were injured in the evening storms. Three children suffered major injuries in Piedmont west of Oklahoma City, according to Lara O’Leary, a spokeswoman for the region’s Emergency Medical Service Authority.
The line of storms began about 3 p.m. in Oklahoma and followed tracks greater than 40 miles into the state’s capital city before continuing on toward Tulsa. Oklahoma state offices and many businesses let workers leave hours earlier to get out of harm’s way.
“We hope that helped save lives,” Fallin said.
Storm clouds also spawned funnel clouds and at least one tornado around North Texas, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Travelers and staff at the two major North Texas airports were moved to safety as the threat of tornadoes and large hail moved into the area.
Also, fans were evacuated from the Rangers Ballpark concourse as a precaution against hail during a rain delay in Tuesday night’s game between the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers.