Image: Man walks through a Bellemont, Ariz., backyard
Felicia Fonseca  /  AP
A man walks through a Bellemont, Ariz., backyard after a tornado swept through the community west of Flagstaff on Wednesday.
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updated 10/6/2010 8:10:42 PM ET 2010-10-07T00:10:42

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 the first tornado rumbled through Bellemont around 5:30 a.m., 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.

'Outbreak'
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.

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In Utah, two teenagers were struck by lightning outside their school on Tuesday. They were airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital, where they regained consciousness Wednesday.

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 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.

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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 collectibles she was trying to salvage.

It was directly in the path of the tornado and the most damaged.

Rain later drenched nearly everything inside.

Image: Trusses and other material
Felicia Fonseca  /  AP
Trusses and other material are thrown onto a Bellemont, Ariz., street from a tornado that hit the small community west of Flagstaff on Wednesday.

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.

__

Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers Jacques Billeaud, Mark Carlson and Bob Christie in Phoenix and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Wild weather rips through Arizona

  1. Transcript of: Wild weather rips through Arizona

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: And as you heard, a major cleanup now under way this morning in parts of Arizona following at least four tornadoes on Wednesday. The Weather Channel 's Julie Martin is in hard-hit Bellemont , Arizona . Julie , good morning.

    JULIE MARTIN reporting: And good morning, Natalie . An unbelievable scene here in Bellemont . These RVs tossed all around this parking lot. This business, a dealership, took a direct hit from one of those tornadoes yesterday, and this morning emergency managers tell us as many as 200 homeowners are also feeling the impacts from this rare occurrence.

    Offscreen Voice #1: Oh, please keep going that way. Please.

    MARTIN: Cell phone video captured the fast moving storm in Flagstaff , Arizona .

    Offscreen Voice #2: Whoa!

    Voice #1: See that power line over there?

    Voice #2: Yeah.

    MARTIN: Fifteen miles away in Bellemont , a series of tornadoes touched down, causing widespread damage throughout the area. Train cars sheared off their wheels, big rigs blown off the highway, dozens of motor homes flipped over with cars, trucks and debris scattered along Interstate 40 . Businesses like this Camping World warehouse took a direct hit from one of the 22 tornadoes reported in northern Arizona Wednesday, some with winds as high as 110 miles an hour.

    Mr. GEORGE HOWARD (National Weather Service): It's not unusual for a tornado or two or three this time of year, but this many is unusual.

    MARTIN: Dozens of homes were damaged.

    Ms. LISA KENNEDY: Unbelievable.

    MARTIN: This is what's left of a home Lisa and Rex Kennedy had been renting to a family in Bellemont . When the storm hit, that family narrowly escaped.

    Ms. KENNEDY: The kids were getting scared so they ran into the room and got in bed with mom and dad, and he said next thing he knows the roof just lifted. He said that he saw the eye of the tornado. And he said he could see the lightning in the -- in the eye of the tornado.

    MARTIN: Now the cleanup begins after a devastating round of wild weather. And this morning National Weather Service assessment teams will be back out at daylight, further assessing and rating the damage, and they'll have their work cut out for them. This region usually sees just three to four tornadoes a year, so yesterday certainly made up for it. Natalie :

    MORALES: All right. Julie Martin in Bellemont , Arizona . Thanks so much, Julie .

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