Overnight tornadoes, storms leave heavy destruction in Nebraska, Iowa

April 28, 2024

Dawn broke over scenes of devastation in several counties across Oklahoma on Sunday, with reports of severe structural damage, closed highways, blackouts, injuries and at least one death. There have been 35 reports of tornadoes overnight so far.

Twenty-seven million people remain at risk of severe weather into Sunday, including wind gusts, hail, flood risk, and potentially more tornadoes.

Saturday’s severe weather came less than 36 hours after more than 100 tornadoes leveled homes and buildings in six states on Friday, with Nebraska and Iowa the hardest hit, officials said.

The weather service office in Norman, Oklahoma, confirmed late on Saturday that multiple tornadoes were in its area, including one near Davenport and more than one in the area of Sulphur, a small town of about 5000 people 80 miles south of Oklahoma City, which appeared to have taken the hardest hit.

Footage emerging on social media in the early hours of Sunday showed heavy damage across Sulphur, including toppled trees and scattered bricks and wooden beams. Buildings in the downtown area sustained significant structural damage, including blown-out windows and missing walls. Others appeared to have been leveled and reduced to rubble.

Early reports from Oklahoma Highway Patrol said some residents have been injured, according to the Department of Emergency Management, though it was not yet clear exactly how many, nor the extent of their injuries.

Red Cross Oklahoma said early Sunday it was opening a shelter in Sulphur, and is in contact with officials in more than a dozen counties to help with the immediate needs of affected residents.

In neighboring Hughes County, officials reported four people injured and one dead, as well as several structures either damaged or destroyed, after a tornado ripped through its western part late Saturday.

Communities in Garfield, Grant, Kay, Payne and several other counties in Oklahoma also suffered damage to homes and other structures, officials said.

The National Weather Service in Norman said as of 1:25 a.m. local time Sunday that some tornado warnings have passed but flash flooding remained a threat.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company said early Sunday approximately 28,000 customers were without service as a result of the storms, primarily in southern Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation warned early Sunday that Interstate-35 was closed in both directions in Love Country due to storm damage cleanup.

More than 30 million people in Oklahoma City; Dallas; Wichita, Kansas; Omaha; Milwaukee; and Madison, Wisconsin, were in the path of severe weather on Saturday.

This round of severe weather arrived even as parts of Nebraska and Iowa were still reeling from the damage caused by two tornadoes that struck the region.

Omaha, Nebraska, Mayor Jean Stothert said on Saturday that no deaths had been reported and there were a relatively few minor injuries.

Despite heavy damage to some residents’ homes, including those belonging to three Omaha firefighters and two police commanders, officials on Saturday were grateful that it wasn’t worse.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Stothert said she planned to sign an emergency declaration, which would allow residents to tap state and federal recovery aid.

She credited the National Weather Service and local news media for warning the public about the tornadoes.

“I do want to thank our local forecasters for the clear and accurate warnings that they gave,” she said. “I absolutely feel that this early warning, because of all of you, you prevented a lot of injury and probably death.”

Lindsay Huse, health director for Douglas County, which underlies Omaha, said by email that fewer than two dozen people suffered minor injuries. They were were treated at medical facilities and have been released, she said.

“That’s just miraculous,” Huse said earlier at the news conference.

People walk through the rubble of a house that was leveled.
People walk through the rubble of a house that was leveled in Elkhorn, Neb., on Saturday.Nicholas Ingram / AP

The National Weather Service conducted assessments of two tornadoes that struck the Omaha area Friday afternoon. One started in the area of Lincoln and ended up in western Douglas County, NWS meteorologist Chris Franks said at the news conference.

It was preliminarily assessed at a “solid” EF3 on the 0-5 scale used by federal forecasters, he said. An EF3 tornado can produce sustained winds of 136 to 165 mph and shift homes off their foundations while peeling away exterior walls.

At Omaha Eppley Airfield, a tornado with a preliminary assessment of EF2 struck Friday afternoon, Franks said. An EF2 tornado can produce sustained winds of 111 to 135 mph that can partially peel away rooftops and breach window glass.

Tornado activity was also reported in neighboring Iowa. Franks said an estimated 80 tornadoes were reported in Douglas County and adjacent communities in Nebraska and Iowa on Friday.

In Lancaster County, Nebraska, a tornado was blamed for a train derailment and a semi-truck rollover, according to National Weather Service notes on Friday’s vortexes.

Omaha police Lt. Neal Bonacci said hundreds of homes were damaged, mostly in the Elkhorn area in the western part of the city.

“You definitely see the path of the tornado,” Bonacci said.

Police and firefighters went door to door to help residents and to search areas where people could be trapped, Omaha Fire Chief Kathy Bossman said.

“We’ll be looking throughout properties in debris piles, we’ll be looking in basements, trying to find any victims and make sure everybody is rescued who needs assistance,” Bossman said.

Pat Woods, who lives in Elkhorn, told The Associated Press, that he and his wife took shelter but could hear the tornado “coming through.”

“When we came up, our fence was gone and we looked to the northwest and the whole neighborhood’s gone,” he said.

His wife, Kim Woods, said the neighborhood to the north of them was “pretty flattened.”

A house destroyed by a tornado in Nebraska
Two women help carry a friend’s belongings out of their damaged home after a tornado passed through the area in Bennington, Neb., on Friday.Josh Funk / AP

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a disaster emergency for Pottawattamie County after video posted on social media showed parts of Minden, about 30 miles northeast of Omaha, completely flattened.

Jeff Theulen, the chief deputy of the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office, said at a Friday evening news conference that 40 or 50 homes were “completely destroyed.” There have been two reports of injuries, one “fairly severe but not life-threatening,” he told reporters.

“It’s very dangerous right now. We’ve shut off entrance to the city except for the people that live here,” he said, noting that “50% of the town is damaged badly and then there’s light damage everywhere else.”

In nearby Shelby County, about 40 homes were damaged, said county emergency coordinator Alex Londo. Officials were assessing the destruction, he said, noting there have been no reports of fatalities.

National Weather Service offices surveyed damage ahead of more severe weather expected Saturday.

The service reported 106 tornadoes on Friday in Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, Kansas, and Missouri. Another tornado was reported Friday morning in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma was also affected by the unstable air and thunderstorms that marched eastward on Friday, but the service listed no confirmed tornadoes for the state.

Tornado damage in Minden, Iowa.
Tornado damage in Minden, Iowa.Courtesy Bryan Olsen

Among Friday’s tornadoes getting preliminary assessment by the weather service were two near Waco, Texas — one believed to be at EF2 strength — and the other assessed at EF1 (86 to 110 mph).

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