A tornado smashed into the Missouri capital as people slept Wednesday night, ripping buildings apart and leaving destruction that the city was only beginning to comprehend as daylight broke Thursday morning.
The damage in Jefferson City came toward the end of a string of strong storms and suspected tornadoes that swept through parts of Missouri on Wednesday. At least three people were killed in a daylight storm in Golden City, more than 150 miles southwest of the capital.
In Jefferson City, the tornado’s funnel was wider than its height, and hit shortly before midnight Wednesday, sending debris as high as 13,000 feet into the air, the National Weather Service said.
“When it hit … it felt like an earthquake,” resident Cindy Sandoval-Jakobsen said.
At least 20 people were treated for injuries in Jefferson City, and no deaths were reported there, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday morning.
Bricks, trees and downed power lines littered parts of the capital Thursday morning.
“Many, many buildings have significant damage, and there’s a lot of buildings that have small damage as well. It’s very widespread,” Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told CNN.
The destruction in Missouri came as severe weather has ravaged the central United States over the past several days, unleashing twisters, drenching rain, flash flooding and hail.
At least 29 tornadoes have been reported from early Wednesday into Thursday morning, mostly in Missouri and Oklahoma, the National Weather Service said. A total of 171 have been reported since Friday.
The danger continues for the region Thursday. Tornadoes could pose threats from Lubbock, Texas, to the Kansas City area and from Columbus, Ohio, to Philadelphia, according to CNN meteorologist Haley Brink.
Witnesses describe harrowing scenes
In Jefferson City, trees and poles were snapped and tossed like toys. Cars were overturned at a local dealership.
“Several structures have damage, roofs torn off houses, trees and power lines down. Basically a war zone,” said Eric Cunningham, who took shelter in his basement.
David Bell got a weather alert that a tornado was headed his way, forcing him to pull over his truck on the side of the highway. Around him, houses collapsed and transformers blew out in flashes.
His windscreen shattered, and part of a house was tossed underneath his trailer, he said.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” he said. “I watched a bunch of transformers blown. Houses next to me completely obliterated. A house halfway underneath my trailer.”
Tornadoes across Missouri
Golden City, about a three-hour drive southwest of Jefferson City, launched search-and-rescue missions after a possible tornado there.
A tornado also hit near Joplin on the eighth anniversary of the devastating twister that killed 161 people there. According to radar images, the storm passed a few miles north of Joplin, in far southwestern Missouri.
In nearby Carl Junction, Chris Higgins recorded a video of a twister churning just outside his neighborhood during daylight Wednesday.
Elsewhere in Missouri, a husband and wife were killed Tuesday when their SUV skidded across the center lines of US 160 and struck a semi.
A dam is threatened in Tulsa
Severe weather was not limited to tornadoes — heavy rains have caused flooding in parts of the central United States, including in Oklahoma.
Police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, asked neighborhoods near a dam to prepare for evacuations if they’re needed, because officials are intentionally releasing water to relieve pressure on the structure.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is releasing 215,000 cubic feet of water per second at the dam at Keystone Lake because the water is 29 feet above its normal level.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum tweeted that this amount is the minimum rate they can release to keep the water in the reservoir from topping the floodgates. If the floodgates don’t work, the dam could fail, Bynum said.
While that dam is about 20 miles from the city, Tulsa authorities told people to be ready to leave their homes quickly if the situation deteriorates.
At least one person drowned in Oklahoma after driving around a barricade on a road in Perkins, the city’s emergency management office said.
Runaway barges force police to close part of I-40
Also in Oklahoma, two barges broke free on the swollen Arkansas River, forcing police to close an Interstate 40 bridge Wednesday near Webbers Falls, state Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Sara Stewart said.
Officials were concerned that the barges could hit the I-40 bridge over the river, Stewart said.
By Thursday morning, the barges had been found several miles upstream from Webbers Falls Lock and Dam 16, the Sequoyah County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
“They are still tied together and are currently stationary and stuck on a rock jetty,” the office said, and operators are working to secure them there. I-40 remains closed in the meantime.
Because of flooding along the Arkansas River and Bayou Manard, some people in and around the communities of Webbers Falls, Muskogee and Fort Gibson were being evacuated Wednesday, state emergency management spokeswoman Keli Cain said.
Storms have repeatedly hit the same areas recently, making the Plains and the Midwest more vulnerable to flooding.
Serious river flooding — including along the already swollen Mississippi River — is expected as more rain falls over the region in the next few days.