Oklahoma towns hard hit by tornadoes begin long cleanup after 4 killed in weekend storms

Apr 29, 2024, 3:31 PM

A sign for the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, lies crumpled and twisted near downtown Sulphur, Oklah...

A sign for the Oklahoma School for the Deaf, lies crumpled and twisted near downtown Sulphur, Oklahoma, Monday, April 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Graham Brewer)

(AP Photo/Graham Brewer)

SULPHUR, Okla. (AP) — When a monster nighttime tornado came roaring into the southern Oklahoma town of Sulphur, Sheila Hilliard Goodman, a grandmother and casino worker, hunkered down inside Raina’s Sport Lounge with about 30 other customers in the popular downtown hangout.

The roof of the bar collapsed Saturday as other brick buildings down the block crumbled. Family members who arrived Sunday to search for her learned she was the only one inside who didn’t survive.

“She loved her family, loved to cook,” said her cousin Wes Hilliard, who confirmed Monday that Goodman was one of the four people in Oklahoma, including an infant, who lost their lives in the storm. “She lived a good life. She was an amazing person who loved big.”

The storms, part of an outbreak of severe weather across the middle of the U.S., also left at least 100 others injured, authorities said. The deadly weather in Oklahoma followed dozens of tornadoes that raked Iowa and Nebraska on Friday, killing one person.

At least 22 tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma, the most powerful of which ripped through Holdenville, Marietta and Sulphur, said National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Smith.

Those tornadoes were rated as EF3 or higher, meaning they were powerful enough to uproot or snap large trees, remove roofs and knock down walls of well-built homes and easily toss cars and heavy vehicles. They were particularly dangerous because they hit after 10 p.m.

“It’s human nature to want to see the tornado before you take action,” Smith said. “And you’re not going to be able to see these tornadoes at night.”

In Sulphur, a town of about 5,000 people south of Oklahoma City, a tornado crumpled many downtown buildings, tossed cars and buses, and sheared the roofs off houses across a 15-block radius.

“We live less than a mile away, but last night it took us more than an hour to get here,” said Kathy John, the publisher of the local weekly newspaper, the Sulphur Times-Democrat, who spent Monday helping her staff move equipment from the downtown newsroom to her nearby home.

The paper hasn’t missed a printing in 82 years, she said, and “we’re not going to now.”

Roughly 100 injuries reported

Hospitals across the state reported about 100 injuries, including people apparently cut or struck by debris, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. A baby was among those killed, Hughes County Emergency Management Director Mike Dockrey told Oklahoma television station KOCO.

At least 17 tornadoes touched down Friday in Iowa, the National Weather Service in Des Moines said in a preliminary report issued Monday. The agency said damage to homes was reported in several counties. Crews are continuing to evaluate damage and a final count may take weeks.

Several tornadoes also were reported in Kansas and Missouri over the weekend, but crews were still determining how many.

In Sulphur, a 1930s natural springs fountain continued to pump on Monday, but the landscape around it was devastated. Giant trees that shaded the park were uprooted and splintered, with branches scattered across the forest floor.

In town, the sound of chainsaws echoed through neighborhoods as residents cut up fallen trees that blocked entry to their homes. A creek that runs through the center of town was filled to its banks with muddy water churned up during the weekend storms. The area also was battered with heavy rain, and many residents spent the day Monday sifting through soggy belongings or pumping standing water from basements.

“How do you rebuild it? This is complete devastation,” said Kelly Trussell, a lifelong Sulphur resident as she surveyed the damage. “It is crazy, you want to help but where do you start?”

Farther north, a tornado near Holdenville killed two people and damaged or destroyed more than a dozen homes, according to the Hughes County Emergency Medical Service. Another person was killed along Interstate 35 near the southern Oklahoma community of Marietta, state officials said.

White House officials said President Joe Biden spoke to Gov. Kevin Stitt on Sunday and offered the full support of the federal government. Stitt declared a state of emergency in 12 counties.

On Monday, Vicki Combs sat on a pink trunk of records that a first responder salvaged from her consignment store while her husband, Larry, pulled up his truck to help load what was left inside the crumpled building. The retired couple moved to Sulphur a few years ago to start their business, which they hope to eventually reopen.

“We’re just devastated, like it can’t be,” said Larry, a retired pastor. “All my life I’ve ministered to people who have gone through stuff like this, but it never really hits home until it happens to you.”

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Oklahoma towns hard hit by tornadoes begin long cleanup after 4 killed in weekend storms