A preliminary review by the National Weather Service found that the powerful tornado that ravaged Missouri’s capital Wednesday night rated at least an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, indicating maximum wind speeds of 160 mph.
Only about 5% of all tornadoes are rated EF-3 or higher, according to CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.
The tornado touched down in Jackson City, Missouri, around 11:40 p.m. local time, ripping buildings apart and overturning cars.
As residents woke Thursday morning they struggled to comprehend the extent of the tornado’s strength and the damage it left in its wake.
“When it hit … it felt like an earthquake,” resident Cindy Sandoval-Jakobsen said.
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.
At least 20 people were treated for injuries in Jefferson City, and no deaths were reported there, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Thursday morning.
Jefferson City police Lt. David Williams said later that no one had been reported missing.
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.
Mike Moehn, president of the energy provider Ameren Missouri, said there was “significant infrastructure damage” and that there was “a lot of work to do.”
Moehn told reporters that Ameren personnel would be working around the clock until power had been restored. The company hoped power would return for all those affected in Jefferson City by Saturday evening.
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.
Kayleigh De Rosa told CNN on Thursday morning she was still shaken up after the tornado struck her home the night before, describing the experience as “the worst nightmare.”
She and her boyfriend woke up to the sound of the tornado roaring through their open window. “It’s one of the loudest sounds I’ve ever heard,” she said.
They ran to the bathroom and sought refuge in their bathtub, getting there seconds before the tornado hit.
“It felt like a train hit my home,” De Rosa said. “Our windows and walls were ripped out.”
Eric Cunningham, who took shelter in his basement, said the scene outside looked like a “war zone.”
“Several structures have damage,” he said, “Roofs torn off houses, trees and power lines down.”
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.”
The president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City said her residence was “unlivable” after the tornado destroyed it.
Jerald Jones Woolfolk said she was in an upstairs bedroom when she heard the sirens and went to the basement, where she said she put her head down and prayed.
After the storm passed, she stepped outside and saw extensive damage.
“Windows knocked out, doors knocked out, a whole back wall came down,” she said. “My vehicles are probably totaled.”
Some of her furniture was found about a half-mile away from campus.
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 215,000 cubic feet of water per second 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 smash into dam
On Thursday, two barges that had broken free on the swollen Arkansas River drifted downstream and slammed into the Webbers Falls Lock & Dam, according to Kim Wann, the LeFlore County emergency manager. The barges promptly sank.
They had forced police earlier to close an Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Falls. The barges were briefly stationary after getting caught on a rock jetty Thursday morning but later broke away again.
No breach in the dam has been identified, Wann said, and state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers are assessing the potential damage.
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 flooding — including along the already swollen Mississippi River — is expected as more rain falls over the region in the next few days.