An apparent tornado killed at least two people as it destroyed a motel, roared through a nearby mobile home park and caused other significant damage in the Oklahoma City area, officials said Sunday.
El Reno Mayor Matt White said during a news conference that officials were working to notify relatives of the two people who were killed. He didn’t say how or where they died and he said search and rescue efforts were ongoing.
The suspected twister hit El Reno, which is just west of Oklahoma City, on Saturday night as a powerful storm system rolled through the state, Rick Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman, told The Associated Press.
The American Budget Value Inn was leveled. Images from the scene showed emergency crews sifting through rubble after part of the motel’s second story collapsed into a pile of debris strewn about the first floor and parking lot. Elsewhere, overturned cars and twisted metal could be seen briefly as intermittent lightning flashed across the sky and the wailing sirens of approaching emergency vehicles were heard in the distance.
Trailers at the Skyview Estates mobile home park adjacent to the motel also were damaged, as was part of a nearby car dealership.
“We have absolutely experienced a traumatic event,” White said during an earlier news conference Sunday.
White said several people were transported to hospitals in Oklahoma City, but did not give an exact number.
“We’re doing a search and rescue right now … we have all hands on deck,” White said.
Saturday night’s storm in El Reno comes after a week of tornados, severe rain and flooding in the Southern Plains and Midwest, including a tornado that hit Jefferson City, Missouri. The recent spate of bad weather and flooding in the region has been blamed for at least nine deaths.
Tweety Garrison, 63, told the AP that she was in her mobile home with her husband, two young grandchildren and a family friend when the storm hit. She said when she heard the storm coming she immediately hit the ground. Moments later, she heard her next-door neighbor’s mobile home slam into hers before it flipped over and landed on her roof.
Garrison said the incident lasted five to 10 minutes and that she received a tornado warning on her phone but the sirens didn’t go off until after the twister hit.
Her 32-year-old son, Elton Garrison, said he heard the wailing tornado sirens and had just laid down at home about a half-mile (1 kilometer) away when his phone rang. He recognized his mother’s number, but there was no voice on the other end when he answered. “I thought, ‘That’s weird,’” he said.
Then his mother called back, and delivered a chilling message: “We’re trapped.”
He said when he arrived at his parent’s home, he found it blocked by debris and sitting with another trailer on top of it. He immediately began clearing a path to the home so that he could eventually lift a portion of an outside wall just enough so that all five occupants could slip beneath it and escape.
“My parents were in there and two of my kids, one 9 and the other 12 … my main emotion was fear,” said Elton Garrison, who has lived in El Reno for about 26 years. “I couldn’t get them out of there quick enough.”
He said he wasn’t alarmed by the warning sirens when he first heard them at home.
“We hear them all the time here, so it didn’t seem like a big deal. … I heard a lot of rain with the wind. But when it kind of got calm all of a sudden, that’s when it didn’t feel right.”
He said his parents had only recently recovered after losing their previous home to a fire a few years ago.
“Now this,” he said, before expressing gratitude that everyone inside his parents’ home had emerged without serious injury.
In the next breath, he added: “Items can be replaced. Lives can’t.”
The storm is the latest to hit the flood-weary central U.S. and dumped yet more rain in the region’s already bloated waterways. In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second-largest city, authorities advised residents of some neighborhoods on Sunday to consider leaving for higher ground because the Arkansas River is stressing the city’s old levee system.
Downriver and about 100 miles southeast of Tulsa in Arkansas’ second-largest city, Fort Smith, authorities said Saturday that 100 to 200 people had already evacuated their homes due to flooding, which was expected to get worse in the coming days.