One year after deadly tornado, Woodward residents still rebuilding their lives

On April 15, 2012, an EF3 tornado struck Woodward in northwest Oklahoma just past midnight, killing six residents, including three children, and damaging about 213 homes and businesses. About half were either majorly damaged or destroyed.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: April 14, 2013 at 8:29 pm •  Published: April 14, 2013

The six people who died that night all lived in manufactured homes.

About 10 miles southwest of Woodward, Derrin Juul died as he tried to save his two youngest daughters from the tornado speeding toward their home. Their home sat about 20 feet from a storm shelter with about a dozen steps down to safety.

He and his daughter, Rose Marie, 10, died that night. Juul was a Marine who worked at an oil services company as a nitrogen pump operator. Rose Marie was remembered as a friendly and energetic girl who played recorder in band and was a good singer.

Struck fast

That night, the tornado was quick. It struck about 12:18 a.m. By 12:25 a.m., it was gone.

Most of the storm chasers had been sent home because the threat had diminished. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Woodward at midnight. The storm was moving faster than usual, and emergency workers were trying to determine whether there was a tornado on the ground.

Once it hit, Lehenbauer looked over the damage and feared that more than 100 people would be dead. During the first few hours after the tornado, he called the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and said he would need refrigerator trucks to handle the number of people he expected to recover.

He was speaking from the city's experience.

On April 9, 1947, the most deadly tornado to ever strike within the borders of Oklahoma hit Woodward, according to the National Weather Service.

At least 107 people were killed in and around Woodward. The tornado was massive, up to 1.8 miles wide, and traveled at forward speeds of about 50 mph, according to the weather service.

Lehenbauer can't pinpoint one specific reason that fewer people died in 2012 than in 1947.

“A number of the people that were in the path did get the warnings, either through our phone notifications system, a weather radio or social media, and those that didn't get them directly, got phone calls and were told, ‘It's big, bad and ugly, get to cover now,'” he said.

Most of it is awareness. More people have access to information about weather, including television and online news reports, weather radios and apps on smartphones.

Lehenbauer regularly uses Twitter and Facebook to alert residents. He also can send text and voice messages to phones across Woodward County when severe weather hits. It's this type of system that's important in initially notifying people of what's coming.

Sirens

A year ago, much debate existed among residents about what happened with the tornado sirens. Some said they went off. Some said they didn't. Misinformation was reported across various media outlets.

A year later, the story is clearer. The tornado was southwest of town when it knocked out the city's main power substation, radio station towers and a large cellphone carrier's main system. This meant it took out 75 percent of the town's electricity, the radio stations used to alert residents and cellphone service for many residents.

The sirens used to run on electricity, so when they were sounded, only three or four went off.

One siren sits outside a city building, dented and partially filled with dirt. The tornado ripped this 600-pound yellow rusted machine out of the ground. Some reported hearing the siren go off as it flew through the air.

Thanks to a $350,000 donation from an oil and gas company, along with some public funding, the city was able to install about 27 sirens that have battery backups in case the power goes out. Most cities have old sirens that have been in commission for 30 years to 50 years.

Lehenbauer said people can't count on sirens as their first line of defense.

“If you can hear sirens in your home anywhere in Oklahoma, that's a bonus,” he said. “But we always recommend three ways to get warnings, and the sirens should be the last on your list because they can fail.”


by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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