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

Destruction in Texas Panhandle: Storm blamed for 3 deaths wrecked mobile homes and main street
At least three deaths are confirmed after a tornado swept through a Texas town. (CNN, KFDA, MARCUS DIAZ, LSM, BRIAN EMFINGER, FACEBOOK, OCHILTREE HOSPITAL, SABR
Published: Jun. 16, 2023 at 7:57 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2023 at 10:41 PM CDT
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PERRYTON, Texas (AP) — As Sabrina Devers watched what would turn out to be a deadly storm approach her ranch just north of the Texas Panhandle town Perryton, she first spotted golf ball-sized and then softball-sized hail.

Then, Devers said, across the high plains toward Perryton, the system spawned a tornado.

Once the twister had moved through, Devers drove into into the town to find a path of wreckage local officials estimated was a quarter of a mile (400 meters) wide, and 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) long. The Thursday afternoon storm would be blamed for three deaths and more than 100 injuries as it destroyed hundreds of homes, tossed vehicles into buildings and knocked out power and cellphone service in Perryton, a town of 8,000 about 115 miles (185 kilometers) northeast of Amarillo, just south of the Oklahoma line.

“The devastation was unbelievable,” Devers told Fox Weather. “It took a tanker truck and threw it into a pasture.”

A tornado killed at least 3 people and injured dozens in Perryton, Texas. (Source: TMX/Associated Press)

Cleanup efforts were underway Friday in Texas as the same system that slapped Perryton continued to wreak havoc as it marched across the Deep South, dumping rain in the Florida Panhandle and sending howling winds into Mississippi. In total, the storms were blamed for five deaths: three in Texas, and one each in Florida and Mississippi.

Ochiltree General Hospital in Perryton treated 115 patients suffering minor to major injuries, including head trauma, collapsed lungs, lacerations and broken bones, the medical center said on Facebook.

“We kind of expected to see more last night and we didn’t,” the hospital’s 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 was operating on a generator and some patients were being treated in a sunlit conference room since exam rooms in one clinic don’t have windows, Judice said.

Among those helping out at the hospital on Thursday was Dr. Mark Garnett, the medical director of Majestic Laser on Main Street who hitched a ride to there after the tornado hit.

Severe storms flooded a West Pensacola neighborhood. (Source: @AlexzorOrlando/CNN)

“People were coming out the woodwork to help and volunteer,” he said. “The response from the area was tremendous.”

Earlier Thursday, he and the staff at the clinic on Main Street had been listening to the rain come down and watching the lights flicker. They thought the tornado might be passing north of Perryton instead of right above them.

“We could hear the rain intensity getting a little louder and then we started hearing some hail and that’s when everyone’s phones went off with a tornado warning,” Garnett said.

He went to the door and realized that he was in the middle of a tornado. He could see trees and debris flying in the air. Garnett and the staff sheltered in the back of the clinic as the glass in the front door shattered.

As he heard the tornado pass, Garnett stepped out onto Main Street and was stunned by the level of debris and destruction.

“We were all just wondering what had happened and how we were still alive,” he said.

Perryton Fire Chief Paul 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.

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

Tornadic activity is not typical for this time of year, according to meteorologist Matt Mosier at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“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.

In the Florida Panhandle, a person died Thursday night 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.

Flash flooding also was reported in Pensacola where between 12 and 16 inches (30 and 40 centimeters) 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 Mississippi a 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 a tree onto his carport as he was entering his car.

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

More than 536,000 customers were without electricity in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on Friday afternoon, according to the poweroutage.us website.

The National Weather Service in Amarillo was surveying damage Friday to determine the tornado rating in the Perryton area, meteorologist Brett Muscha said.

More thunderstorms were 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 (100 kph) wind gusts.

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).

Earlier this week, damaging winds toppled trees, damaged buildings and blew cars off a highway as powerful storms crossed the South from Texas to Georgia.

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Brumfield reported from Washington, D.C. and Dupuy from New York. Associated Press journalists Ken Miller reported from Oklahoma City; Rick Callahan in Indianapolis; Robert Jablon in Los Angeles; Michael Goldberg in Jackson, Mississippi; Juan Lozano in Houston and Adam Kealoha Causey in Dallas contributed to this report.