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Storms pop up in Plains as forecasters sound alarm

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WICHITA, Kan. — Tornadoes dropped onto the Great Plains on Thursday after forecasters warned of a potentially historic outbreak, causing some damage and spooking a pair of circus elephants in Kansas that escaped their enclosure and roamed a town before being captured.

One of the animals entered a backyard less than a mile from the fairgrounds in WaKeeney and was blocked off by fire trucks until trainers could coax it onto a truck, said Trego County Sheriff Richard Schneider.

"I guess it got tired of walking around," he said.

The second elephant was tranquilized in another backyard, coaxed into a truck and returned to the circus, which was already packing up to head to the next town, Schneider said.

At least four tornadoes touched down in western and central Kansas. Tornadoes were also reported in Nebraska and Missouri, and a funnel cloud was spotted in Colorado.

A twister in Clay County in north-central Kansas destroyed a home, damaged several other buildings, and toppled trees and power lines, said sheriff's dispatcher Cat Dallinga. Storms also damaged roofs at the Pratt County airport in south-central Kansas and overturned tractor-trailers along Interstate 29, officials said.

Wind and hail caused extensive roof damage in Collyer, near WaKeeney, Schneider said.

Computer forecasting models for Thursday resembled those on June 8, 1974, when 39 tornadoes raked the southern Plains and killed 22 people. The National Weather Service on Tuesday took the unusual step of giving advance warning of a possible tornado outbreak based on the conditions.

By late evening, no storms had caused major damage or injuries, though Noreen Schwein of the National Weather Service in Kansas City cautioned there was still potential for strong storms.

"We're certainly not out of the woods yet," she said.

Wichita State University canceled evening classes because of the weather predictions.

Storms on Wednesday soaked the region and then moved across to the mid-Atlantic region. Four deaths were blamed on the storms, in Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and Virginia.

Tornadoes touched down in southern Iowa, causing isolated damage in rural areas. Many rivers flooded.

"The rivers haven't had a chance to go down, and with the heavy rains, they just keep going higher," said Brad Fillbach, another meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Fillbach said Creston, Iowa, which had a brush with a tornado Wednesday evening, had about 6 inches of rain by Thursday morning. Some roads were under 3 feet of water early Thursday.

"The weather has been real active this week. It'll be nice to get a few days to dry out and get these rivers back down," Fillbach said.

In the Washington area, Wednesday's storm toppled tree lines and power lines, leaving tens of thousands of homes and businesses without electricity Thursday. Some failures could last for several days because of the severity of the damage, Pepco spokesman Bob Dobkin said.

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Associated Press writers Nelson Lampe and Josh Funk in Omaha and Bill Draper in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this report.