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Early tornado warnings help save lives

WOODWARD, Okla. -- The television was tuned to forecasters' warnings of an impending storm when Greg Tomlyanobich heard a short burst from a tornado siren blare after midnight Sunday. Then silence. Then rumbling.

The 52-year-old grabbed his wife and grandson, hurrying them into the emergency cellar as debris whirled around their heads at their mobile home park in northwest Oklahoma. They huddled inside with about 20 other people before the tornado, among dozens that swept across the nation's midsection during the weekend, roared above, ripping homes from their foundations.

"It scared the hell out of me," Tomlyanobich said.

The storm killed five people, including three children, and injured more than two dozen in Woodward, 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

That was the only tornado that caused fatalities. Many of the touchdowns raked harmlessly across stretches of rural Kansas, and though communities there and in Iowa were hit, residents and officials credited days of urgent warnings from forecasters for saving lives.

The storms were part of an exceptionally strong system tracked by the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. The center, which specializes in tornado forecasting, took the unusual step of warning people more than 24 hours in advance of a possible "high-end, life-threatening event." Center spokesman Chris Vaccaro said the weather service received at least 120 reports of tornadoes by dawn yesterday and was working to confirm how many actually touched down.

The system was weakening as it crawled east and additional tornadoes were unlikely, though thunderstorms were predicted as far east as Michigan.

Woodward suffered the worst of the destruction from the storms, which also struck in Nebraska. Woodward City Manager Alan Riffel said 89 homes and 13 businesses were destroyed, and bloodied survivors in the 12,000-resident town emerged to find flipped cars and smashed trailers.

In Kansas, a reported tornado damaged McConnell Air Force Base and the Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing plants in Wichita late Saturday. Preliminary estimates suggest damage could be as high as $283 million in the area.

The storm also toppled a 65-foot Ferris wheel at an amusement park.

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