By Jennifer Gray, Aya Elamroussi, Robert Shackleford and Tina Burnside, CNN
More severe storms are threatening some 50 million people from Texas to Wisconsin after the same system left at least three people dead in Oklahoma, with a dozen tornadoes reported across three states and search-and-rescue still underway in some places.
Numerous severe thunderstorm warnings are in effect Thursday from Texas to Illinois as thunderstorms are producing large hail and strong winds.
A tornado warning is in effect in Illinois for a storm about 30 miles southwest of Peoria, and conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin through the evening hours.
The toll of two fatalities, plus injuries, in Cole near Oklahoma City could climb as damage assessments continue, Deputy Scott Gibbons with the McClain County Sheriff’s Office told CNN. First responders have gotten reports of people trapped in shelters, and teams searching systematically across a 10-mile path must navigate roads littered with downed power lines and debris, he added.
Someone hurt in Pottawatomie County in central Oklahoma also died at a hospital, Gibbons said.
The same system that spawned Wednesday’s severe storms is heading east Thursday, with rain, hail, damaging winds and some tornadoes and flash flooding possible. Areas from the hill country of Texas to southern Illinois — including Dallas, Houston and Chicago, plus Little Rock, Arkansas; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Jefferson City and Springfield, Missouri — face a Level 2 out of 5 “slight risk” of severe weather, the Storm Prediction Center said.
A tornado watch is in effect for more than 14 million people in northern Illinois, eastern Iowa and southern Wisconsin, including Chicago and Milwaukee, until 8 p.m. CDT Thursday, according to the center.
A few tornadoes, wind gusts up to 75 mph and large hail up to 2 inches in diameter are possible with these storms this afternoon and evening.
Severe thunderstorm watches are in effect for central Illinois to central Texas. St. Louis; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Shreveport, Louisiana, are included in the watches, which extend into the evening. Strong winds and large hall are the primary concerns in these areas, but isolated tornadoes are also possible.
Wednesday’s worst storms were reported across Oklahoma — where eight tornadoes have been confirmed by the National Weather Service office in Norman — while Kansas and Iowa also were hit. About 17,000 homes and businesses in Oklahoma had no power midday Thursday.
A reported tornado in Cole, home to more than 600 people about 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, appears to have been one of the most significant. To resident Barry Harbison, it felt like a roller-coaster when the storm lifted his trailer home off the ground and tossed it — while he was stuck in it, he said.
“I stayed in the bathroom and (the storm) picked up the whole trailer and moved it,” Harbison told CNN affiliate KOCO.
The National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, plans to survey Cole, Shawnee and the Etowah-Pink-Stella area Thursday.
In addition to nine reports of tornadoes in Oklahoma, four tornado reports were recorded in Iowa and three in Kansas on Wednesday; of those, two tornadoes in Iowa and one in Kansas were preliminarily confirmed.
‘Blessed everybody is alive’
About 60 miles east of Cole, a large and very dangerous tornado traipsed through Shawnee, a city of about 30,000 people in Pottawatomie County. The storm was moving erratically north of the city around 10 p.m. Wednesday, the National Weather Service in Norman said.
Shawnee Public Schools canceled classes Thursday, the district announced on Facebook.
More than 30 residents at Brookdale Senior Living, an assisted living facility in Shawnee, Oklahoma, were evacuated after the building’s windows were blown out and water seeped inside, according to Shelee Stewart, the executive director.
“We’ve been blessed everybody is alive,” Stewart told KOCO, noting there were no major injuries.
Stewart described the staff who helped guide residents to the bathrooms while the storm passed as “heroes,” adding some had minor scratches.
As crews spread out in the county to respond to the storms, the Pottawatomie County emergency management agency warned residents not to leave their homes to observe the damage, noting that hinders response efforts.
“There is tremendous amounts of ponding on areas storms have come through so please do not drive through the water!” the agency said.
“Our county was hit hard and it will take a while for every area to be checked,” the agency later said.
“If you can, check on your neighbors, but be mindful of potential gas leaks and possibly downed power lines,” Shawnee Police said Wednesday evening in a Facebook post.
Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee also canceled classes Thursday and Friday after urging students to avoid being outdoors. No injuries were reported, but the campus was significantly damaged, the university said.
“Authorities are advising students to stay in their housing units through the night,” due to downed power lines and scattered debris, the school said.
More severe storms expected Thursday
The main threats from Thursday’s severe weather will be large hail and strong winds — and tornadoes can’t be ruled out.
“The areas of most concern are eastern North Texas (including the DFW Metro) and much of Central Texas, though areas east of I-35 will see the higher likelihood for severe storms,” said the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.
Heavy rainfall could lead to flash flooding in some locations. Most areas will see 1 to 3 inches of rain, with more in isolated spots.
There is also a much broader Level 1 out of 5 “marginal risk” of storms Thursday from South Texas to the Midwest, including Memphis, Tennessee.
These areas could also see strong winds, damaging hail and an isolated tornado.
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CNN’s Haley Brink, Chris Boyette, Joe Sutton, Paradise Afshar, Elizabeth Wolfe, Amanda Jackson and Taylor Ward contributed to this report.