May 9, 2003 at 2:32 PM CDT - Updated June 20 at 2:55 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY May 9 —
Residents and business owners began sifting through the debris Friday in the wake of violent tornadoes, while some of the heaviest rainfall in more than a century swamped parts of the South with flooding.
No fatalities were reported in the Oklahoma City area, where tornadoes demolished 300 homes Thursday. At least 104 people were injured, five critically, said Paul O'Leary, spokesman for the Oklahoma City ambulance service.
Since Sunday, tornado-packed storms have killed at least 42 people across the Midwest and Plains 18 in Missouri, 15 in Tennessee, seven in Kansas and two in Illinois. Officials have estimated damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The twister near Oklahoma City struck just as the afternoon rush hour was beginning Thursday.
David Waller was driving an 18-wheeler on Interstate 40 when he saw the tornado coming his way. He said he parked his rig and ran for a clump of bushes and a tree.
"I'm scared to death," said Waller, shaking, his clothes covered with mud. His semi was picked up by the tornado and dropped on its side. He said the sky was filled with litter as the twister passed by.
"All I saw was a bunch of trash," he said.
Tornado sirens sounded just before 5 p.m. and the twister touched down in suburban Moore 15 minutes later. Shrouded by rain, it moved over Interstate 35 and a mall before moving to the northeast and into two more suburbs, Midwest City and Del City.
The National Weather Service said straight-line winds were suspected of causing a train to derail in Chase County, where authorities evacuated about 15 homes for about four hours because of spilled sulfur dioxide.
Neither of the people on board the train were hurt, but a passer-by suffered inhalation injuries, Chase County Sheriff Gerald Ingalls said. His condition was not immediately available.
For some, the twister rekindled memories of the May 3, 1999, tornado that ripped through the Oklahoma City area, killing 44 people.
"Some of those very same parts were hit again," Gov. Brad Henry said. "Nature can be cruel, but Oklahomans are a resilient people and we will face this crisis with strength and resolve."
In Moore, Terri Morris and her daughter, Kimber, looked at the stripped tree limbs and debris cluttering their street. They hid in a closet in their brick home when the tornado hit.
"These little houses, they make it," she said. Her home also survived the deadly 1999 tornado.
General Motors' recently renovated assembly plant was extensively damaged. GM spokesman Dan Flores said no employees at the plant in south Oklahoma City were hurt. Two truck drivers were injured; one went to a hospital, he said.
Henry said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials will start assessing the damage Friday. A request to have Oklahoma and Cleveland counties declared disaster areas has also been initiated.
At least seven tornadoes swept across Kansas on Thursday night, and one ripped roofs off homes and apartment buildings in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas.
Tornados were reported in 28 Kansas counties Thursday night, said Maj. Gen. Greg Gardner, the state's adjutant general and director of emergency management.
A tornado hit the southwest corner of Lawrence, downing power lines, flipping cars and spreading insulation and debris as far as five miles away to Interstate 70 on the north side of town.
"I saw the debris and said, `Oh yeah, this is real,'" said Sue Lewis, who had windows blown out of her house and shingles stripped from her roof. "I've lived in Kansas for 56 years, and I've never seen one. But now that I know what it's like, it really does sound like a train coming across your house."
Some of the heaviest rainfall in more than a century swamped parts of the South with flooding, forcing hundreds of people to flee homes and businesses in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
In west-central Georgia, hundreds of people were evacuated from homes and businesses in Troup County Thursday as the Chattahoochee River rose to threatening levels.
Interstate 85 was closed near the Alabama-Georgia line as waters rose to the highest level in decades.
"This is the largest outbreak of severe weather of its kind that we've seen in some time," said Buzz Weiss, spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, which received damage reports from more than 20 counties, many of them in western Georgia.
More than a foot of rain has fallen on the region since last weekend. The swollen Tennessee River has forced as many as 1,600 people out of their homes in the worst flooding to hit Chattanooga, Tenn., in nearly 30 years.