NORMAN — A tornado Friday afternoon cut an eight-mile path through Norman, snapping power poles, uprooting trees, damaging buildings and causing minor injuries as residents braced for the potential of even more severe weather throughout the weekend.
“It is surprising you don't have more injured with the time of day, about 4:02,” Deputy Norman Fire Chief Jim Bailey said. “Norman is a busy town. There were a lot of people out driving around, and we had very little notification.”
Cleveland County was in a tornado watch minutes before the twister suddenly touched down at Interstate 35 and W Lindsey Street. It hopscotched through the center of town, ripping the roofs off buildings and raking a park near the city's municipal complex before fading out in the northeast side of the city near Robinson and 12th Avenue NE. Thousands lost electricity.
A tornado warning was issued at 3:59 p.m., the tornado touched down three minutes later, and the first damage was reported at 4:07 p.m., said Rick Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
At least 18 people were taken to Norman Regional Hospital with minor injuries like scrapes and bruises, said Kelly Wells, hospital spokeswoman.
One person was admitted to the hospital, and the others were treated and released, she said.
One person was treated and released at the Health Plex in Norman. Everyone had minor injuries. The person admitted to the hospital was in fair condition as of 10:30 p.m. Friday.
Wells said hundreds of people sought shelter at the hospitals in Norman. This can cause problems for the hospital as they try to treat patients.
“If they can't find shelter elsewhere, we would encourage them to do that, but we wouldn't turn them away,” Wells said.
Two of the injured were in a vehicle when the tornado hit and another was hit by debris, Bailey said.
The strength of the tornado was not immediately calculated, but the damage pattern seemed to indicate the tornado was not of the most powerful variety.
Atmospheric conditions Saturday will be ripe for more tornadoes and other severe weather, the National Weather Service said.
“The bottom line is, be ready for it. It may happen in one place or it may happen across a huge part of the state, but it only takes one tornado and one storm,” Smith said.
Severe thunderstorms are possible throughout the state Saturday, but the Oklahoma City area and most of the middle third of the state are in an area deemed at the highest risk.
Storms are expected to form in the late afternoon or early evening and track across the state, forecasters said. Tornadoes, damaging straight-line winds, lightning, hail and flooding rain are possible.
“If everything comes together like it could, it could be a serious situation for parts of Oklahoma,” Smith said.
‘There was a roar'
In Norman on Friday, the University of Oklahoma had no reports of damage, a spokeswoman said, but other areas weren't so lucky.
Smith said the most significant structural damage was found near the hospital at N Porter Avenue and E Robinson Street. Bailey said the tornado ripped the trees out at Andrews Park near the municipal complex.
Philip DeFatta, owner of Leon Pierce Body Shop, 521 N Porter, said he took cover inside his shop. While he did not hear the tornado, he heard the medical records building next door explode.
“It's gone,” he said. “The roof's gone. It's all over the place. The front wall is down. Part of it is in my building.”
He said the storm moved around cars in his parking lot, but his auto repair building is intact.
DeFatta said he does not believe anyone was in the medical records building when it was hit. “The police have been all through it, looking,” he said.
The tornado downed power lines, trapping numerous motorists in their cars on 24th Avenue SW between W Lindsey Street and W Brooks Street.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. and firefighters worked to the clear downed power lines and free trapped motorists.
Robert Ruiz, of Norman, said he and his family had about three minutes between the time they heard the announcement to seek shelter and the time storm hit downtown.
Ruiz, a partner with Enye Media at 301 1/2 E Main St., said the storm ripped off his back door and threw it about 25 feet after he, his wife and four children rushed to take cover there.
As they hunkered down in the middle of a recording studio in the business, they saw heavy rain and debris flying past the window.
“It was raining hard, and then all of a sudden, everything went sideways,” Ruiz said. “All the rain went sideways, and we starting seeing debris. There was a roar, and the kids got really scared of the situation. They had their heads down and their hands on the back of their heads, and they started crying.”
The chaos lasted about a minute, he said.
OG&E reported 4,000 customers without power in Norman, 1,500 in Oklahoma City and 1,500 in Piedmont about 6 p.m. Friday.
Norman city officials canceled household hazardous waste collection scheduled for Saturday, though a spring cleanup will continue as planned.
Elsewhere Friday evening in Oklahoma, there were preliminary reports of a tornado north of Altus near the Blair community in Jackson County, one near Cooperton in the eastern Kiowa County and another tornado south of Carnegie in western Caddo County. Those reports had not been confirmed as of 9 p.m. Friday, the weather service said.
Emergency responders throughout Oklahoma began to organize this week in anticipation of the Saturday storms, state Emergency Management Department spokeswoman Keli Cain said. The agency plans to open its emergency operations center by 3 p.m.
Authorities are coordinating with local emergency management officials, meteorologists, law enforcement officers, paramedics, firefighters and others in preparation for the storms, Cain said.
Similar advance planning was under way Friday in cities across the state. Officials in nearly every department in Oklahoma City were meeting to go over plans and procedures, city spokeswoman Kristy Yager said.
Officials' priorities are ensuring every method of informing the public about weather conditions is used effectively, and to coordinate a fast response to help people in areas affected by any tornadoes and other severe weather.
How to stay safe
Authorities strongly recommend people seek shelter in their own homes. A safe room, basement or other underground shelter is ideal. Otherwise, sheltering on the lowest possible floor inside an interior room with no windows, like a closet or bathroom, is best.
Those who plan to go to a relative, friend, neighbor or workplace that has an underground shelter should head there well before the weather is expected to hit. Driving during a severe storm, or soon before one is expected to hit, could be dangerous.
Officials recommend having a radio that's not dependent on electric power available in case electricity service is cut off. Surrounding people in the sheltered area with blankets, pillows, padding or other protective gear is also recommended.
Authorities urge residents to keep their cellphones fully charged, prepare a kit with emergency supplies and keep their identification and car keys with them at all times.