Saturday, April 16, 2011

Oklahoma tornadoes: A tornado left a wide swath of destruction Thursday night. Two people died and a public school was destroyed.

BY BRYAN DEAN and TRICIA PEMBERTON Oklahoman Comment on this article 0
Published: April 16, 2011

TUSHKA — Residents began cleaning up Friday after a Thursday night tornado left at least two dead and as many as 100 homes and businesses destroyed in and near Tushka.

Two women were killed in a mobile home west of the town of about 350 residents, said Gilbert Wilson, emergency management director and county commissioner for Atoka County. Dozens more in the town were injured.

Between 25 and 35 people were treated at the Atoka County Medical Center, but all have been released, hospital Chief Executive Officer Paul Reano said Friday.

“We treated everything from scratches and bruises to lacerations and serious wounds,” Reano said. “We are not treating anyone at this time.”

At least five tornadoes touched down in the state. No major injuries were reported outside of the Tushka area, although some damage was reported from several other tornadoes and storm winds in Marshall, Osage, Lincoln and Delaware counties.

Gov. Mary Fallin on Friday declared a state of emergency in 26 counties, which will make it easier for local authorities to take advantage of state resources during cleanup efforts.

Counties in the declaration are: Atoka, Carter, Coal, Creek, Custer, Delaware, Harper, Johnston, Latimer, Le Flore, Lincoln, Love, Marshall, Murray, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Osage, Pittsburg, Pontotoc, Pushmataha, Rogers, Seminole, Tulsa, Wagoner, Washington and Woodward.

EF-3 rating estimated

According to the National Weather Service, the Tushka tornado was rated EF-3 on the enhanced Fujita scale, which estimates the wind speed of tornadoes based on damage. An EF-3 can contain wind gusts of up to 165 mph.

Wilson said the tornado started four or five miles west of Tushka and traveled east, destroying homes and the school in the town about 120 miles southeast of Oklahoma City.

As many as 100 homes and businesses, including the Tushka public school, were destroyed by the storm that hit about 7:30 p.m., Wilson said. Authorities still are trying to determine the extent of the damage.

Tractor-trailer rigs and tree limbs were scattered on the main highway into Tushka, U.S. 69, and authorities closed some roads because of downed power lines and trees. Wilson said U.S. 69 was open Friday.

The storm also tore up roofs and shattered windows.

“There’s going to be a lot of work,” Wilson said. “This could be several days unless we get some crews in here. The county has men, equipment and chain saws. We’re chopping, and we’re doing everything we can to get everybody through.”

‘Felt like a bomb’

Several eye witnesses said two tornadoes hit at the same time, Wilson said. From the damage he’s seen, that looks to be the case, he said.

An apparent tornado then traveled from Tushka northeast and came out about one mile east of Atoka, Wilson said. It missed Atoka, but hit again just northeast of that town, leaving damage for 12 to 15 miles.

“It left a path of destruction plumb across,” Wilson said.

Many in Tushka sought shelter.

“It felt like a bomb,” said Jennifer Buffington, who fled to a storm cellar with her husband, Tony Stiles, and their seven children when the tornado sirens sounded.

When the family emerged, they found the windows blown out of their house. The family sought shelter at First Baptist Church in nearby Atoka.

“Everything in my house looks like shambles,” said Jennifer Buffington, 36, whose children range in age from 1 to 20.

Easton Crow, a junior at the public school where students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend, said he was at a baseball game in nearby Hugo when the storm hit. He went by the school and saw the damage: The roof was gone, the top story of one of the school’s buildings was torn off and textbooks were scattered everywhere.

“I’m heartbroken. This is where most of us grew up,” said Crow, 17. “I’m just in awe that in a few seconds, memories that have been built were taken.”

Principal Matt Simpson said the school won’t be usable for the rest of the school year.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but this is definitely new for me,” Simpson said.

“It means a lot of challenges I wasn’t expecting.”

Becky Anderson, Atoka County Emergency Management secretary, said the area “looks like a war zone.”


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