CNN) — Calling hundreds stuck in traffic jams in the Oklahoma City area “sitting ducks” for oncoming tornadoes, authorities were urging people to abandon their vehicles and find low-lying cover.
The National Weather Service has issued a tornado emergency for a number of areas in and around Oklahoma’s capital city, with tornadoes reportedly moving just outside of Moore, near the suburb of Bethany, north of Union City and outside Tinker Air Force Base.
Parts of Interstates 35 and 40, which cut through Oklahoma City and Moore, were “a parking lot,” the weather service said, warning that those caught in the heavy rush hour traffic “are in danger.”
“We’ve got a nightmare situation going on right now,” Betsy Randolph, a state Highway Patrol spokeswoman, told CNN.
“They are essentially sitting ducks on the interstate.”
Overturned big rigs and cars littered portions of the roadway, and thousands more were believed to be stuck in the traffic.
“My biggest concern right now is the traffic that is out on the highway right now,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.
She said she has called out the National Guard, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the state Office of Emergency Management to “try to get the traffic moving” and get people to shelter.
The tornado emergency declaration means a large, destructive tornado is moving into a densely populated area where widespread damage and fatalities could occur.
The weather service issued the tornado emergency for Oklahoma City as well as its suburbs of Moore, Yukon and Bethany.
Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport was evacuated over the threat from the approaching tornado, and travelers were being sheltered in the airport’s basement, authorities said. Power was out at the airport, officials said.
Even those in the National Weather Center — a building on the University of Oklahoma campus with tenants that include the National Severe Storms Laboratory and NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center — “have been urged to stay away from windows due to potential for 80-90 mph winds,” according to a tweet from weather service’s Norman office, which also is based in the building.
Police and firefighters were responding to reports of damage in El Reno, just outside Union City, but it was not immediately known how bad the damage was, Mayor Matt White said.
Authorities were urging people in the path of the tornado to take immediate cover, and Fallin was urging residents not to take any risks.
In Moore, where a massive tornado leveled much of the city this month, Mayor Glenn Lewis said it was unimaginable that the city was in the path of another tornado.
A reported tornado was located four miles northwest of Moore, moving east-southeast at 30 mph, according to the National Weather Service forecasters and storm spotters.
The storm was so fierce that the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes, known for his on-the-ground severe weather reports, said his Tornado Hunt vehicle was thrown about 200 yards.
“Airbags deployed. All are safe,” Bettes said in a post on Twitter.
More than 50,000 customers were without power by early Friday evening in the Oklahoma City area because of severe weather, the Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. said.
More than half the city of Mustang, 17 miles south of Oklahoma City, was without power, Mustang Fire Chief Roy Widmann said.