BELLEMONT, Ariz. – A rare swarm of tornadoes shoved semis off highways and destroyed homes in the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday, leaving startled residents wondering if they were in Arizona anymore or had woken up in the twister-prone Midwest.
After one tornado rumbled through Bellemont around 5:30 with wind speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, residents armed with flashlights emerged from their homes to check on the damage — a house splintered, windows smashed, garage doors twisted, but no major injuries.
“Running through the house, all the Kansas movies go through your head telling you: ‘Move to the basement,'” Breanna Hunt said. “But we don’t have a basement.”
Another tornado struck minutes later east of the small town of a few hundred people nestled in the Ponderosa pines just west of Flagstaff. Weather forecasters confirmed a total of four twisters, including one reported around noon along Interstate 17 south of Flagstaff.
National Weather Service meteorologist George Howard said 22 tornado warnings were issued Wednesday. The radar showed many more twisters likely formed but weren’t confirmed.
Sparsely populated Arizona typically has four tornadoes a year, but rarely if ever sees twisters come in clusters and cause the kind of damage seen Wednesday, meteorologists said.
“The hammering that northern Arizona is getting right now is exceptional,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Waters in Phoenix. “It’s not uncommon this time of year to have one or two tornado reports or a warning, but this is quite an outbreak.”
The storm system moved across the West over the last few days, dropping record-setting rain in northern Nevada, pounding Phoenix with hail and dumping enough snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains to close a highway pass.
In Utah, two teenagers were struck by lightning outside their school Tuesday. They were airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital, where one regained consciousness Wednesday and a trauma surgeon predicted the other would recover but suffer major scarring.
The extreme weather came from a low-pressure system that has been parked over Central and Southern California. The system was expected to weaken as it drifts northward.
Arizona, however, was the hardest hit. On Tuesday, storms ripped out trees and broke windows in metropolitan Phoenix, flooded roadways, shut airports and dented cars and shattered windows with hail bigger than golf balls in some places.
On Wednesday, semitrailers were sitting along the side of Interstate 40. High winds cast dozens of cars of a freight train off the tracks in Bellemont around 6:30 a.m. No one was injured and the cars did not contain any hazardous materials.
About 30 homes were so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable and the people who lived in them were evacuated, authorities said. A shelter was set up for them.
Minutes before the first tornado in Bellemont touched down, Jeff Cox was standing in his garage, his children nestled in bed. Rain and hail pounded hard against the windows and a fierce wind made it look like houses were swaying.
Then Cox heard a deafening sound and ducked beneath a flatbed trailer carrying two all-terrain vehicles.
The tornado struck, pushing the trailer two feet, tearing off the roof of nearly his entire home and throwing it and other debris into the nearby forest.
“It was so loud, it sounded like a big boom,” his wife, Jennifer, said through tears, wiping water from collectables she was trying to salvage.
It was directly in the path of the tornado and the most damaged.
Rain later drenched nearly everything inside.
At Brad and Dani Stricker’s home, the kitchen cabinets were knocked from the walls of their ranch-style house, the refrigerator was tipped over, every window in the house was busted and the frame was exposed with drywall and glass covering the carpet.
Brad Stricker said he and his wife were lying in bed when the tornado struck, spraying shattered glass. But nothing hit them.
“Miraculously, we’re OK,” he said.