Night falls as tornadoes rake Central Plains

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dozens of tornadoes raked the Central Plains on Saturday as residents in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa braced themselves for a long night of tornado-watching.

Damage was relatively light in the afternoon as the storm scraped across the sparsely populated farmlands of western and central Kansas. A hospital was damaged in Creston, Iowa, with no injuries reported.

But well after sundown, much of the region was still under tornado watches. If anything, the potential for disaster increased as the system headed toward more densely populated areas in eastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska.

“Tornadoes are difficult to see and confirm at night,” the National Weather Service said in one of the myriad warnings it issued for the region throughout the day. The alert for Marion, Kan., warned of tennis-ball-sized hail and tornadic winds that would destroy mobile homes. “Take cover now.”

The National Weather Service had predicted the system would bring potentially life-threatening storms, and as of 9:30 p.m. Central time, the service counted 77 tornado reports spanning an arc from western Oklahoma to southern Iowa.

Many touched down only briefly. A few others damaged some buildings and knocked over power lines and highway signs, according to the weather service.

The ongoing storm was an early test of a new National Weather Service initiative to strengthen the language of its tornado warnings after a series of tornadoes ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., last year, killing hundreds. Many people did not take cover despite multiple warnings.

The service now plans on strengthening its warnings with new phrases such as “mass devastation,” “complete destruction” and “not survivable.”

A National Weather Service report in September illustrated the extent to which Joplin residents had ignored the warnings for a storm that killed at least 158 people.

“The majority of surveyed Joplin residents did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning, whether from local warning sirens, television, NWR [NOAA weather radio], or other sources,” the report said. Many people said they weren’t worried because Joplin had never been hit before.

The report found one resident who ignored nine warning signals before taking cover.

During Saturday’s storms, many Kansans’ reactions were mixed — some were scared, others nonchalant, many annoyed.

On Twitter, some teens worried that the storm might mess up their prom night. Others seemed a little less stressed.

“I live in Kansas.... In Wichita and the weather is horrible.... we’re on Tornado watch I hope I don’t die lol,” @GomezRoses tweeted.

Pearce writes for The Times.