More Deadly Storms Could Hit U.S. Plains

Violent thunderstorms with hail and tornadoes may sweep across the southern Great Plains, two days after one of the deadliest U.S. twisters on record killed at least 116 people in Joplin, Missouri.

An area from Kansas to Texas, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Dallas, may face intense storms today, said Russ Schneider, director of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

“Several large, strong tornadoes are expected this afternoon and evening,” according to the center’s forecast. “Very large hail, damaging winds and several potentially significant tornadoes appear likely as the storms increase and spread across Kansas and Oklahoma into western Arkansas and then later in western Missouri.”

The storms have the potential to affect “some very dense population areas,” Schneider said. “This is a very serious situation that is brewing.”

At least 481 people have died in tornadoes so far this year, the earliest that such a high toll has been reached, Schneider said. The tornado in Joplin, Missouri, tied with a 1953 Flint, Michigan, twister as the single deadliest in records going back to 1950.

Record Year Possible

“We are now on pace for a record year for tornado fatalities,” Schneider said on a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We have to be aware that we are just now entering the peak of the season.”

The deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. was 1925, when 794 people were killed, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

A three-quarter-mile wide tornado tore through Joplin at about 6 p.m. May 22, destroying and damaging homes and buildings including St. John’s Regional Medical Center, according to state and local statements. The tornado’s winds may have reached 198 miles per hour (319 kilometers per hour), said Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service.

Lucky Foddrill, 82, had just stepped out of the shower when he heard the tornado was coming. He lay flat on the floor and waited as shards of glass and debris flew. When it passed, he was under a pile.

“I was pinned underneath it,” said Foddrill, now at a Red Cross shelter. “It took me about 20 minutes to get out from beneath it.”

National Guard Assist

Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston declared a local disaster, according to the city’s website, while Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and sent National Guard troops to help.

Volunteers and other crews are searching the wreckage for survivors and victims. There were reports of scattered looting in the city of 50,000 about 290 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Emergency crews worked late into the night in a commercial area in the southern part of the city where a Home Depot, Wal- Mart and other stores were damaged or destroyed. Nearby residential neighborhoods were dark, with debris scattered around houses and in the streets.

Temporary clinics were set up at the Joplin Memorial Hall and McCauley Catholic High School to treat wounded residents and transport serious cases when hospital beds become available in the region, said Darlene Thompson, a registered nurse working at the high school.

Hospital Hit

The tornado partially tore the roof off and caused extensive damage at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, where 183 patients were being treated when the storm hit. Five patients and a visitor were killed, and the surviving patients were evacuated to other hospitals in the area, said Cora Scott, a spokeswoman for Sisters of Mercy Health System.

There was only five minutes’ warning and time to start moving patients to interior hallways, Scott said.

“If you could see the building, you’d be amazed that most of those patients made it out,” Scott said in a telephone interview from Springfield, Missouri.

The outbreak came a month after at least 305 tornadoes tore through the U.S. South, killing 327 people, mostly in Alabama, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. The damage from the storms April 25 to April 27 was estimated to be as much as $5 billion, according to catastrophic risk modeler Eqecat Inc. in Oakland, California.

Possible Storm Causes

This year’s stormy season may be caused by a waning La Nina, a cooling in the Pacific Ocean, that is creating a zone suitable for tornado conditions as warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with colder air in the north.

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf are now 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the pre-1970 average, said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“Two degrees of that can be attributed to natural variability while one degree Fahrenheit is associated with climate change,” Trenberth said in an interview today.

Hayes, Schneider and Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the weather service’s central region, who was also on yesterday’s conference call, weren’t ready to attribute the outbreaks to climate change.

Schneider said there’s “emerging research” to suggest that years like 2011 in which a La Nina fades tend to produce more tornadoes. He said more research is needed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Stets at dstets@bloomberg.net

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