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May 21, 2013

Duncan dodges destruction after small tornado knocks out power

DUNCAN — A tornado touched down in Stephens County Monday about 3 p.m., east of Duncan, and Central High Mayor Julie McKinney snapped a photo of it with her cellphone. Watching it cross State Highway 29, three miles east of Marlow, with her, was Sheriff Wayne McKinney, Marlow Fire Chief Ryan Hall and county Emergency Management Director Gary Ball.

In Duncan, Mike Anderson, Stephens County Fair & Expo Center Director, said he squeezed into the storm cellar at the fairgrounds along with all the other employees.

“I was never afraid of tornados until 1979,” Anderson shared while he stood on his property near Elk Avenue and N Street east of Duncan later in the day. “That one that hit in Wichita Falls, there were papers falling out of the sky into Waurika.”

A tornado warning had been issued Monday for Stephens County, but because officials had their eyes on it, the sirens were not needing to be sounded. But for most of the county, people only knew that one had been issued, if they had their weather radios, phone apps or TV on.

Hail also was produced ranging from pea to quarter size.

At the same time, many people were glued to their TV’s watching as news stations in Oklahoma City were tracking tornados through Newcastle and Moore.

Then Stephens County power went down.

That tornado had taken out a transmission feed at the Lake Humphreys area.

“We were on Highway 29, at the top of the hill when it crossed the highway. The line had a metal roof hanging off of it like it was laundry,” Ball said.

That same tornado knocked out a Cotton Electric line near the Bray and the Harrisburg substations, but quick response had the power restored within two hours. Karen Kaley, CE’s Communications Specialist confirmed.

And then, a tornado wiped out Moore. The tornado was reported to be two miles wide at times.

While that was happening, traffic on U.S. 81 in Duncan was sparse and Duncan Police Officers were out at major intersections directing traffic. Most businesses were without power, including Applebees. No customers were at the restaurant and some of their staff had taken shelter in their walk-in refrigerator. Tiffany Scifres said they had been outside watching rotation and small tornados form but then go back into the clouds.

After Sunday’s tornado outbreak and destruction, it was obvious Oklahomans were taking the warnings seriously.

In the evening, Anderson was watching the activity in the sky, fascinated by the bubble clouds forming and being sucked into the structure.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said. He too had unexpected visitors that he knew stop by and take shelter with him at his place. Anderson said he had heard county barn workers had been released early when the storms began firing up.

That has not been confirmed yet with Stephens County Commissioners.

Ball said a task force will be assembled and could be sent to Moore today, but they were waiting on word from the Oklahoma State Emergency Management on schedules and assignments.

“We will most likely send a task force, it could be 4 a.m.,” he said.

Though the area remained in a watch, by 7 p.m., it appeared the dryline had moved east and the storms were not impacting southern Oklahoma.

But, today, the storm system could fire up again, according to weather officials.

“There is activity south of us and anytime you  have activity south of us, be alert,” said Jimmy Pryor, Deputy Director for county emergency management and Flood Plains director, who works alongside Ball.

“We dodged a big bullet. We are absolutely lucky (Stephens County),” Pryor said. “I don’t think the tornado was a threat to Duncan.”

He also credits the numerous sources of information that were being shared by all agencies.

As of 9 p.m., 51 people had been confirmed dead by the state medical examiners. The number of deaths is expected to climb and many of those are children. Search and rescue efforts were being recategorized as search and rescue. See related stories in this edition.

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