Forecasters warn of potential massive tornado outbreak in Great Plains

Forecasters warn of potential massive tornado outbreak in Great Plains
A camper is overturned as a tornado destroyed buildings, Thursday, June 5, 2008 in Afton, Iowa. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, John Gaps III).
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Severe storms popped up over the Great Plains on Thursday afternoon as forecasters warned of a potential tornado outbreak that could rival that of a June day in 1974 when 22 people were killed.

A funnel cloud was spotted over southwestern Nebraska, and flood warnings and watches were issued for much of the state as streams and rivers overflowed, thanks to recent rainfall of more than 5 inches in places.

Large hail, strong winds and heavy rain whipped through northwest Kansas. There was 1.5 inches of hail in Goodland, Kan., and winds of 70 mph in Ruleton, the National Weather Service said.

In a strongly worded statement Thursday, the weather service warned that parts of Kansas could suffer hail bigger than baseballs, winds higher than 80 mph and "a few strong to violent long-lived tornadoes."

Computer forecasting models for Thursday resembled those on June 8, 1974, when 39 tornadoes raked the southern Plains. The National Weather Service on Tuesday took the unusual step of giving advance warning of a possible tornado outbreak based on the conditions.

Forecasters had said severe thunderstorms would form in Kansas and move toward eastern Kansas, Nebraska, northwestern Missouri and Iowa. Heavy rainfall and flooding were also possible, especially late Thursday night in southeast Kansas.

"The highest risk is central Kansas and the entire central portion of the country," said Brad Mickelson, a weather service meteorologist. "There is a high risk of severe thunderstorms."

Singled out as at high risk were Omaha; Topeka, Kan.; Des Moines, Iowa; and south-central Minnesota, he said. The region at risk of severe thunderstorms stretched from northern Texas to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On Wednesday, storms soaked the Midwest and then moved across to the mid-Atlantic region. Three deaths were blamed on the storms.

Tornadoes touched down in southern Iowa, causing isolated damage in rural areas. Many rivers flooded.

"The rivers haven't had a chance to go down, and with the heavy rains, they just keep going higher," said Brad Fillbach, another meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Fillbach said Creston, Iowa, which had a brush with a tornado Wednesday evening, had about 6 inches of rain by Thursday morning. Some roads were under 3 feet of water early Thursday.

"The weather has been real active this week. It'll be nice to get a few days to dry out and get these rivers back down," Fillbach said.

In the Washington metro area, Wednesday's storm downed tree lines and power lines, leaving more than 200,000 homes and businesses without electricity Thursday. Some outages could last for several days because of the severity of the damage, Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said.