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Tornadoes in Central Oklahoma kill 3, Governor Stitt declares a state of emergency in 5 counties

 Downed trees and damaged buildings at Oklahoma Baptist University.
Graycen Wheeler
Downed trees and damaged buildings at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Last updated April 20, 2023 at 4:15 p.m.

An outbreak of tornadoes in central Oklahoma Wednesday evening leveled homes, tossed vehicles and killed at least three people.

The tiny town of Cole took a direct hit from a large tornado. As of early Thursday morning there were three confirmed deaths in that area.

The city of Shawnee, just east of Oklahoma City, saw significant damage as well.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt spoke Thursday morning from Oklahoma Baptist University, where multiple buildings were damaged.

"All the families in Shawnee and that have students who go here from out of state, everybody's been accounted for, all the students," Stitt said. "We've canceled class for the next two days and so we're rebuilding and going to put things back together. But let all the families know that all the kids are OK."

Thursday afternoon, Stitt declared a state of emergency in Cleveland, Lincoln , McClain, Oklahoma and Pottawatomie counties.

"The damage is unbelievable when you walk through there," Stitt said. "We are so fortunate. We thank the Lord that no lives were lost here in Shawnee."

But the town didn’t escape unscathed.

“Restaurants that we love are just demolished and destroyed,” Shawnee resident Buffy Dunk said. “Power lines are down everywhere, poles are down. We saw three semis blocking the street over there by Big Lots.”

Dunk has two students at OBU, so her whole family came to campus to clear tree limbs and pick up debris.

“The tornado that came on February 26th followed the same exact path as this one did, except this one, I think, was far worse,” Dunk said. “It didn't hit our house, but we're just here to help.”

The tornado punched holes in roofs of several OBU buildings, including Raley Chapel, which just had its iconic red-tiled roof replaced in 2016.

“We found a lot of the shingles of Reilly Chapel's roof that are all signed,” Dunk said. “And we were trying to save them at first. But now there's been so many, we haven't been saving them.”

Down the road from OBU, Shawnee High School lost several structures, including a gym, an ag barn and the press box at their football stadium, where graduation is supposed to take place next month.

We'll have to reassess graduation and what that's going to look like because it's slated to happen on our football field,” District Superintendent April Grace said. “We have a month before that date, so we'll just see what progress can be made.”

Both OBU and Shawnee Public Schools are still determining how the rest of the school year will look for students. OBU students said they expect to finish out the semester in remote learning but haven’t received official word.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security released a situation update late Thursday morning.

The state agency is working with several other agencies, law enforcement and volunteer groups to lead a coordinated effort for the impacted areas.

The Pottawatomie County Emergency Management reports numerous tornadoes have been on the ground across the county. County officials have requested assistance from the Oklahoma Disaster Task Force and a mobile command post from the Choctaw nation.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Foster addressed the media as the search and rescue effort was ongoing.

"We’re having to park and walk up miles to get into a lot of these places. And so it will take us time to search that. We do know that there are injuries. We do know that there’s significant damage to property," Foster said.

The high school in Washington, Oklahoma, near Cole, canceled class for Thursday as it’s being utilized as a shelter.

The hail damage is extensive. Nearly 20,000 OG&E customers lost power overall.

A locally managed shelter and reunification center is open at Washington School, 101 East Kirby Avenue in Washington, OK for residents displaced by the storms. American Red Cross is supporting the shelter.

There are additional shelters at the following locations:

  • Noble High School, 4601 E. Etowah, Noble, OK
  • Shawnee Shelter, 1701 Gordon Cooper Drive, Shawnee, OK

Residents are asked to report damage to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management at damage.ok.gov.

Oklahoma residents seeking non-emergency disaster or health and human service information can call 211.

Oklahoma public radio reporters are continuing to monitor the situation.

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Copyright 2023 KGOU. To see more, visit KGOU.

Graycen Wheeler
Logan Layden is a native of McAlester, Oklahoma. He's a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a Master's in Journalism and spent three years as a student employee, covering the state capitol and local host of All Things Considered for KGOU. Logan was hired as a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma from its creation in 2011 through 2017.
Kateleigh Mills joined KOSU in March 2018, following her undergraduate degree completion from the University of Central Oklahoma in December 2017.