Piedmont, Okla. When three tornadoes marched toward Oklahoma City and its suburbs, thousands of people in the path benefited from good forecasts, luck and live television to avoid the kind of catastrophe that befell Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.
Although at least 15 people died in the latest round of violent weather that started Tuesday, schools and offices closed early, giving many families plenty of time to take shelter. And even stragglers were able to get to safety at the last minute because TV forecasters narrated the twisters’ every turn.
“We live in Oklahoma, and we don’t mess around,” Lori Jenkins of Guthrie said after emerging from a neighbor’s storm shelter to find her carport crumpled and her home damaged.
The people of Oklahoma City, which has been struck by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city, knew the storms were coming.
Anxiety was perhaps running higher than usual Tuesday after last month’s twister outbreak in the South that killed more than 300 people and a Sunday storm that killed at least 125 in Joplin, Mo.
The Oklahoma twisters proved to be weaker than the other tornadoes. But the minute-by-minute accounts of the developing weather helped thousands of people stay abreast of the danger.
Television helicopters broadcast live footage while the system approached the metropolitan area of 1.2 million people — calling out to specific communities like Piedmont to “Take cover now!”
In Guthrie, about 30 miles north of the capital city, Ron Brooks was watching when he learned that a tornado was barreling toward him. He heeded the weatherman’s warning, scooped up his two children and took cover with his wife in their laundry room.
“When they told us to get into the shelter or interior room, we did that,” Brooks said. “The first year I moved to Oklahoma, in 1997, I saw a funnel drop out of a wall cloud. Since seeing one, I’ve always taken it pretty seriously.” He emerged 20 minutes later, relieved to learn that the tornado passed just north of his home.
Another line of severe storms swept through the nation’s midsection Wednesday, mainly east of Oklahoma. A tornado warning was briefly issued for downtown Kansas City, Mo., and at least two weak tornadoes touched down in or near the suburbs.
A few others were reported in Illinois. The storms moved later into Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Rescue and recovery work continued, with crews repeating grid searches for any survivors who might still be buried in rubble. Structural engineers were sent inside the ruins of St. John’s Medical Center, which was crippled by the twister, to see if the hospital could be saved.
Back in the Oklahoma City area, at least nine people were killed, despite broadcasters offering live coverage of the storms for two hours before the bad weather actually hit around the evening rush hour.
Across the border in Arkansas, people in the tiny hamlet of Denning didn’t have the luxury of an early warning. A tornado killed at least one person there. Storms left three others dead elsewhere in Arkansas and killed two in Kansas.
The storms arrived in Denning in the darkness, with a warning posted only about 10 minutes before a tornado nearly obliterated the town of 270 shortly after midnight.
Oklahoma City has been hit by tornadoes 146 times, according to the federal government’s Storm Prediction Center. That history brings respect for severe storms and a simple rule for people who find themselves in a twister’s path: Get out of the way or get underground.