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News / Nation & World

Cleanup under way after storms hit swath of Southern states, killing at least 5, destroying homes

Published: June 16, 2023, 10:29am
3 Photos
Buildings and a vehicle bear damage from a tornado in Perryton, Texas, Thursday, June 15, 2023.
Buildings and a vehicle bear damage from a tornado in Perryton, Texas, Thursday, June 15, 2023. (Alex Driggars/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal via AP) Photo Gallery

PERRYTON, Texas (AP) — Cleanup efforts continued Friday after severe storms — including some that produced tornadoes — tore across a swath of Southern states, killing at least five people as they destroyed hundreds of homes, tossed vehicles into buildings and left hundreds of thousands without electricity.

In Perryton in the Texas Panhandle, Ochiltree County Sheriff Terry Bouchard said three people were killed when the tornado struck Thursday afternoon.

Another person died Thursday night in the Florida Panhandle when at least one confirmed tornado cut through Escambia County, toppling a tree onto a home, county spokesperson Andie Gibson told the Pensacola News Journal.

Also, a Mississippi man died after a tree fell on him during stormy weather early Friday. Canton Police Chief Otha Brown told WLBT-TV the man was killed after high winds toppled over a tree onto his carport as he was entering his car.

In Texas, of the homes searched so far in Perryton, all but one occupant had been accounted for, so the main priority was going back over the area and the debris field to find that person, Perryton Fire Chief Paul Dutcher said on NBC’s “Today” show.

Dutcher estimated that 150 to 200 homes in the community had been destroyed and said that in the downtown area, many storefronts were totally wiped off and buildings had collapsed or partially collapsed.

“You keep hearing people say, ‘We’ll rebuild’ and ‘We’ll be back,’” he said. “And we will. That’s the hope we have.”

But the biggest concern was trying to help the families of those who were killed carry on, Dutcher said.

“It is such a tragedy,” Dutcher said. “All the stuff behind me, it can all be rebuilt, but those lives that we’ve lost is really the tragedy of everything,” the fire chief said.

When the storm first approached Sabrina Devers’ ranch about 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of Perryton, she told Fox Weather it brought golf ball-sized, then softball-sized hail and Devers said she could then see a tornado.

After the tornado moved away, Devers went into the town to check on their store.

“The devastation was unbelievable. It took a tanker truck and threw it into a pasture,” Devers said. Power lines were knocked down and buildings were flattened in the town of about 8,000 about 115 miles (185 kilometers) northeast of Amarillo, just south of the Oklahoma line.

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The National Weather Service in Amarillo was sending a survey team Friday to assess damage and determine the tornado rating in the Perryton area, meteorologist Brett Muscha said.

More thunderstorms are possible in the far northern Texas Panhandle and the Oklahoma Panhandle Friday afternoon and night, Muscha said.

The greatest chance of strong and severe storms were on the Oklahoma side with golf ball-size hail and 60 mph (97 kph) wind gusts, Muscha said.

Ochiltree General Hospital treated 115 patients suffering minor to major injuries, including head injuries, collapsed lungs, lacerations and broken bones, according to a Facebook post.

“We kind of expected to see more last night and we didn’t,” interim CEO Kelly Judice said. “We just want people in our community to know that we’re here. We’re open. We have clinics open. We’re ready for business to take care of the people that need to be treated.”

People with routine medical checkups planned were asked to reschedule.

The hospital is operating on a generator and some patients were being treated in a bright conference room since exam rooms in one clinic don’t have windows, Judice said.

After hitting Perryton, the storm system moved into Oklahoma, spawning several more suspected twisters in addition to high winds and large hail.

Observations Program Leader Forrest Mitchell at the National Weather Service office in Norman, Oklahoma, said survey crews were expected to head out Friday to southwest and west central Oklahoma and western North Texas to investigate possible tornados.

Nearly 590,000 customers were without electricity in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma Friday morning, according to the poweroutage.us website.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday he had directed the state Division of Emergency Management to help with everything from traffic control to restoring water and other utilities, if needed.

Meanwhile, flash flooding was reported in Pensacola, Florida, where between 12 and 16 inches of rain has fallen since Thursday evening, said Caitlin Baldwin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Mobile in Pensacola.

In West Pensacola, flash floodwaters surrounded an apartment complex that was evacuated of all its 146 residents. Boats were used to remove some and take them to a local community center, said Davis Wood, public information officer for Escambia County Public Safety.

No injuries were reported in that evacuation.

The storm system also brought hail and possible tornados to northwestern Ohio.

It was the second consecutive day that powerful storms struck the U.S. and comes as spring nears its end, not a typical time of year for tornadic activity, but not rare, according to meteorologist Matt Mosier at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman.

“You expect thunderstorms this time of year,” Mosier said. “It’s definitely not rare, but tornadoes are not on a lot of people’s minds because they’ve just kind of moved away from the season that they’re typically focused on (tornadoes).”

This week has been very warm with moist, unstable conditions that combined with strong wind shear, which is abnormal for this time of year, Mosier said.

“Thunderstorms are not uncommon at all, but to get storms that were producing very large, I mean, 2- to 3-inch hail, day after day — that is abnormal,” Mosier said.

Also in Texas and Southern states including Louisiana, heat advisories were in effect Friday and were forecast into the Juneteenth holiday weekend with temperatures reaching toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). It was expected to feel as hot as 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius).