OMAHA, Neb. - Superstar swimmer Michael Phelps and his Club Wolverine
teammates were headed for an afternoon practice for the U.S. Olympic trials when
the tornado sirens sounded.
"Really ominous, that's for sure," recalled two-time Olympian Erik Vendt,
Phelps' roommate during the meet.
Severe storms swept through the Plains on Friday, forcing the swimmers in Omaha
to flee pools and run for cover. Strong winds in neighboring Iowa killed two
teenagers and knocked out power to thousands.
Officials at the Qwest Center near downtown Omaha closed the building to examine
it after Phelps and hundreds of other athletes were herded into hallways because
of a tornado warning.
Water poured into the building, down arena steps and onto the deck of the
competition pool during the storm. The storm's winds may have reached 100 mph in
some areas, said meteorologist Bryon Miller.
Repairs were under way at the Qwest Center and practices were to resume
Saturday, according to USA Swimming spokeswoman Jamie Olsen.
An eight-day meet to decide the U.S. Olympic swimming team opens Sunday.
Across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, two 18-year-old men died when
a tree fell on the car they were in while they were at a friend's house, said
Police Sgt. Jason Bailey. Authorities used a backhoe to free a 15-year-old girl
trapped in the back seat.
Damage reports in the region included toppled trees and power lines and hail the
size of baseballs. Flash flood watches were issued across Iowa, where flooding
has been a problem recently.
In Detroit, about 1 1/2 inches of rain were dumped on the downtown area during
the evening rush hour. Freeways and some surface streets were made impassable.
No serious injuries were immediately reported in Omaha, but there were reports
of a few house fires caused by lightning, said Al Berndt, assistant director of
the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
Hundreds of people had gathered for a 6 p.m. outdoor concert and for an arts
festival in downtown Omaha. Booths flipped over, and awnings and other covers
were whipped away by strong winds.
The outdoor concert and fireworks were canceled.
A spokesman for the Omaha Public Power District said more than a third of its
customers were without power. The district serves 330,000 customers. There were
widespread power failures in Council Bluffs, and Bailey said the police
department was on auxiliary power.
The Missouri River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves the Omaha area, lost
power and untreated wastewater was being discharged into the Missouri River,
said Joe Gudenrath, spokesman for Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. City officials told
people to avoid wading or swimming in the water in the stretch of the river that
passes by Omaha, and several miles downstream.
Outside the Qwest Center, chunks of what appeared to be material from the
building were scattered about.
After the storm had passed, the Qwest Center was cleared and swimmers headed
outside to snap pictures of sheet metal and other material that had been blown