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Midwest tornadoes pose severe threat across hundreds of miles

Tornadoes raking communities across the Midwest and Plains left five people dead and at least 29 injured in Oklahoma as a vast severe weather front plunged eastward Sunday across the nation's midsection.

By Rochelle HinesAssociated Press, Roxanna HegemanAssociated Press / April 15, 2012

A tornado makes its way through farmlands near Rush Center, Kansas, Saturday. A spate of tornadoes tore through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, churning through Wichita and other areas, causing widespread damage.

Gene Blevins/Reuters

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Oklahoma City

Tornadoes raking communities across the Midwest and Plains left five people dead and at least 29 injured in Oklahoma, damaging a hospital, homes and other buildings as a vast severe weather front plunged eastward Sunday across the nation's midsection.

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Oklahoma emergency officials said five people died after a tornado touched down at 12:18 a.m. Sunday in and around the northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward, the high winds damaging homes, toppling trees and downing power lines about 140 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. The brunt of the damage was reported on the west side of the town of about 12,000 and its outskirts, where search teams scoured the rubble for hours for any still trapped or injured.

Storms also were reported in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska as a wide-ranging storm system lumbered its way across the nation's midsection Saturday and Sunday. Lightning, large hail and heavy downpours accompanied the system, which was so large that it still posed a severe weather threat from Minnnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in the north to eastern Texas and Louisiana hundreds of miles to the south.

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Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said the state medical examiner's office confirmed five fatalities in the Woodward area early Sunday. Several homes were damaged. More than 8,000 customers were without power in the region.

A deputy director in Cain's office, Michelann Ooten, told AP that emergency crews remained very much in search and rescue mode at first light, hours after they began operations in darkness.

"They're still going door to door and in some cases there are piles of rubble and they are having to sift through the rubble," she told AP. "They are trying to identify if anyone is still in there, trying to account for everyone."

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which specializes in tornado forecasting, had warned of a "high-end, life-threatening event" nearly two days before the bad weather hit. It was just the second time in U.S. history that the center issued a high-risk warning more than 24 hours in advance. The first was in April 2006, when nearly 100 tornadoes tore across the southeastern U.S., killing a dozen people and damaging more than 1,000 homes in Tennessee.

The center's spokesman, Chris Vaccaro, said the weather service had received at least 97 reports of tornadoes by dawn Sunday and survey teams would be heading out to investigate and determine the number of actual tornadoes, their highest winds, and the width and length of their destructive paths. Several large funnel clouds and tornadoes were photographed and videographed during the outbreak.

He warned the threat wasn't over for those across several states in the nation's interior.

"Severe weather is possible in a swath from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan south to eastern Texas and Louisiana," Vaccaro told AP.

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