Tornadoes pound US Plains as residents hunker down

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - A spate of tornadoes tore through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa on Saturday, churning through Wichita and other areas while causing property damage but no immediate reports of deaths or widespread injuries.

Tornadoes skipped across the US Central and Southern Plains and residents braced for the possibility of more, but the twisters primarily affected sparsely populated areas.

A hospital in the town of Creston, Iowa was damaged by a possible tornado, and patients were being moved to hospitals in surrounding communities, according to local officials.

A tornado churned through the city of Wichita, Kansas. Storm chaser Brandon Redmond, a meteorologist with the Severe Weather Alert Team, said the twister passed over his vehicle and lifted it two feet (60 cm) off the ground in an industrial area south of the city.

"The tornado literally formed over our vehicle," he told Reuters. "I've never been that scared in my life. ... We had power flashes all around us and debris circulating all around the vehicle, sheet metal, parts of a roof, plywood."

Damage was reported to a mobile home park, and Redmond said there was significant damage in the industrial area on the city's south side.

Residents in the affected regions hunkered down for more severe weather. The National Weather Service said the worst conditions were expected in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, while other areas could see baseball-sized hail and strong winds. Severe storms were also possible from Texas to Minnesota.

"Conditions will remain very favorable through the evening for very strong and potentially long-lived tornadoes," the National Weather Service said in an advisory. "Tornadoes will be possible in these areas (Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma) through the early morning hours."

It warned that nighttime tornadoes can be particularly dangerous because they are usually fast-moving and often obscured by rain and darkness.

A tornado hit before dawn in Mustang, a suburb of Oklahoma City, the weather service said. One home had major roof damage, and trees, power lines and fences were down, said Kristy Yager, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City.

Early tornado season

The US tornado season started early this year, with twisters already blamed for 57 deaths in 2012 in the Midwest and South, raising concerns that this year would be a repeat of 2011, the deadliest tornado year in nearly a century.

Some 550 people died in tornadoes last year, including 316 killed in an April outbreak in five Southern states, and 161 people in Joplin, Missouri, the following month.

The Greater Regional Medical Center hospital in Creston, Iowa, was damaged by a possible tornado, said a woman who answered the phone there but declined to give her name.

"We've been hit," she said. An Iowa emergency management spokesman said two people were injured, but the National Weather Service could not immediately confirm the storm was a tornado.

Creston City Councilman Randy White said patients were being moved to hospitals in surrounding communities after the tornado passed north and west of downtown, knocking out power to all but a small part of the town of about 7,500 people.

The tiny Iowa town of Thurman, population around 250, was hit by a storm that caused structural damage to some homes and ripped shingles off the roofs of others while downing power poles and trees, officials said.

"Some kind of a storm went through, whether it was a straight wind or tornado hasn't been determined," said Randy Chapman, a deputy at the Fremont County Sheriff's Office. "I would estimate a fourth of the houses have been made unlivable."

Tornadoes also raced through north-central Kansas in the early evening. Five homes in rural Saline County were damaged, but the tornado avoided towns and no one was hurt, said Joe Koch, county director of emergency management.

An apparent tornado near Oxford, Nebraska, on Saturday evening took a roof off a farm house and toppled a grain bin but no injuries or other serious damage in the area were reported, said Bridget Timmerman, a dispatcher for the Harlan County sheriff's office.

Tornadoes briefly touched down earlier in Nebraska's Nuckolls County and Thayer County.

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