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2 dead, 29 hurt as tornado destroys hotel, trailer park in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 4 minutes

Posted at 5:02 PM, May 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-26 18:06:02-04

At least two people were killed and 29 injured, some critically, when a tornado ripped through an Oklahoma City suburb in the middle of the night, wiping out a hotel, a mobile-home park and several other buildings in just four minutes.

The National Weather Service confirmed Sunday that a tornado hit El Reno, a town with a population of nearly 20,000, on Saturday and left a swath of damage that will take weeks to clean up and caused pain the loved ones of the dead will likely never get over.

"This community is brokenhearted, we're hurt, we're absolutely devastated," El Reno Mayor Matt White said at a news conference Sunday morning.

White said the two deaths occurred in the area of a mobile-home park where the twister touched down at 10:28 p.m. While sirens signaled the approaching funnel cloud, residents said there was little time to seek shelter.

He said search-and-rescue teams were conducting grid searches through the devastated area, "picking up walls of debris to make sure nobody is under there."

He said an unknown number of people are unaccounted for.

White said 16 people were taken by ambulance to hospitals from the epicenter of the disaster zone and another 13 were raced to hospitals in private vehicles. He said injuries ranged from minor to critical, and that several people were undergoing surgery at the Oklahoma University Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

A woman who survived the tornado told ABC station KOCO in Oklahoma City that she and her two grandchildren escaped their mobile home only to find themselves in the middle of a "disaster zone."

"We heard screaming and stuff, children and adults both," she said. "A lot of destruction, a lot of chaos and .... death."

The National Weather Service meteorologists in Norman, Oklahoma, rated the tornado an EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning it generated wind speeds in the range of 136 to 165 mph. The highest rating on the scale, an EF5, packs winds topping 200 mph.

The weather service reported that the twister cut a 2.2-mile long path of destruction, and was about 75 yards at its widest point.

The tornado carried debris more than 4 miles northeast of El Reno, officials said.

Video showed the devastation. The tornado hit the hotel, an American Budget Value Inn, on Interstate 40, ripping off most of its second floor, and reducing much the structure to splintered pieces of wood and shattered glass.

"As far as we know right now, there is no one in the rubble," the hotel's owner, Ramesh Patel, told ABC Oklahoma affiliate KOCO.

A woman who was working in the office when the tornado hit suffered a broken leg, Patel said.

White confirmed that everyone at the hotel when the tornado struck has been accounted for.

At sunrise Sunday, video showed a mobile home park next to the hotel strewn with shattered glass, wood and other debris that just hours earlier were residences of a thriving community. Aerial footage showed the twister slammed residences in a corner of the mobile home park while leaving other homes virtually unscathed.

Several vehicles were overturned and others were smashed by debris.

After striking the mobile home park, the tornado hit the hotel and a nearby Dodge dealership, tearing the roof off the business, aerial footage showed.

"We have absolutely experienced a traumatic event here in El Reno," White said. "We had an incident where a tornado hit a mobile home park, a hotel and several businesses."

White asked people to stay away from the area while search-and-rescue teams continue to pick through the rubble from the hotel and mobile home park.

"I think El Reno, Oklahoma, needs a lot of prayers. It's been a traumatic experience," White said. "None of this is easy. We're all shook up."

Police in the neighboring town of Union City said the ferocious funnel cloud created a "very serious situation" with "serious injuries and fatalities involved."

"Please pray for those affected by these storms as well as the emergency services workers assisting in this ongoing rescue," police said in a statement posted to Facebook. "This is an unfortunate example of just how quickly these types of storms can develop from a simple thunderstorm into a deadly supercell tornado."

A National Weather Service meteorologist confirmed the catastrophic weather event was a tornado by analyzing radar images and seeing a "debris ball" in the area, and by detecting telltale evidence of a twister by examining pictures of the damage and eyeballing the devastation in person, officials said.

The tornado that hit El Reno comes on the heels of a severe weather week in the Southern Plains. There were 104 tornadoes reported across eight states -- Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Maryland -- from Monday to Thursday.

Three people were killed in Golden City, Missouri, on Thursday as a tornado moved through the region. The state's capital, Jefferson City, about 170 miles northeast of Golden City, also suffered severe damage the same night from a tornado, but no one was killed.

At least four other people were also killed from storms, including flash flooding, in the central U.S. this week.