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Midwest towns say early storm warnings saved lives

Associated Press Modified: April 15, 2012 at 8:01 pm •  Published: April 15, 2012

Authorities said a signal tower for Woodward's tornado sirens was struck by lightning and hit by a tornado early Sunday morning. Police Chief Harvey Rutherford said the tower that was supposed to send a repeating signal to the town's tornado siren system was knocked out.

Considering the tornado struck at night and the sirens were damaged, it was remarkable that there wasn't a greater loss of life, Rutherford said. "We had the hand of God take care of us," he said.

Frank and Treva Owens knew dangerous storms were moving toward Woodward, and although they didn't hear sirens, the elderly couple was watching TV weather reports all day.

"I heard them say we had nine minutes and that's when I hit the cellar," Frank Ownes said, noting that the 12-foot by 12-foot shelter was prepped with their medications, food and clothing.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin toured the area by helicopter before walking through some of the town's hardest hit neighborhoods.

"Getting the response out immediately throughout the community -- it's just remarkable what you have done," Fallin told a group of emergency officials. "Once again that emphasizes how important it is to have a plan."

In the tiny western Iowa town of Thurman, piles of toppled trees lined the streets in front of homes where missing walls and roofs exposed soaked living rooms. Longtime resident Ted Stafford recalled feeling his home shake, then hearing three windows shatter as the storm hit. He was amazed that no one in town was seriously injured.

"We're all OK, fortunately. Nobody's hurt. We can fuel this recovery with beans and coffee," the 54-year-old said while standing on the broken concrete of what had been his home's new basement foundation.

In Kansas, a reported tornado damaged McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants in Wichita late Saturday. Preliminary estimates suggest damages could be as high as $283 million in the area, where the storm also toppled a 65-foot Ferris wheel at a local amusement park.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback acknowledged that the damage could have been far worse, noting in an interview with CNN that residents appeared to have heeded safety warnings. "God was merciful," he said.

Yvonne Tucker rushed to a shelter with about 60 of her neighbors at Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Wichita. She said people were crying and screaming, and the shelter's lights went out when the twister hit. When they went back outside, they found several homes destroyed, including Tucker's.

"I didn't think it was that bad until I walked down my street and everything is gone," Tucker said. "I don't know what to do."

Fellow mobile home resident Kristin Dean, who was pushed out of her home in a wheelchair, grabbed some possessions before going into the shelter, and she later learned that was all she had left. Her home was gone.

"It got still," she said. "Then we heard a 'wham,' things flying. Everybody screamed, huddling together. It is devastating, but you know, we are alive."


Associated Press reporters Roxanna Hegeman in Wichita, Kan.; Grant Schulte in Thurman, Iowa; and Rochelle Hines in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.