A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the entertainment resort town of Branson and laying waste to small towns in Illinois and Kansas. At least nine people were killed.
An apparent twister rolled through Branson just before 1 a.m. and seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, ripping roofs off hotels and damaging some of the city's famed music theaters dangerously close to the start of the heavy tourism season. At least 37 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.
"We were blessed with several things — the time of year and certainly the time of day, when people were not in their vehicles or outdoors," said Mayor Raeanne Presley, noting that during Branson's peak season, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in the city on any given day and staying in many of the hotels that were damaged.
"If it was a week later, it'd be a different story," said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for the 530-room downtown Hilton hotel, where windows were shattered and some rooms had furniture sucked away by high winds. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
To the north in Stone and Dallas counties, at least 60 homes were damaged or destroyed and at least 17 more people injured, one critically.
John Moore, owner of the damaged Cakes-n-Creams '50s Diner, said the tornado seemed to target the city's main strip, moving down the entertainment district, through the convention center, across a lake and into a housing division. He said the tornado appeared to "jump side to side."
"The theater next to me kind of exploded. It went everywhere. The hotels on the two sides of me lost their roofs. Power lines are down. Windows are blown out," Moore said. "There's major, major destruction. There has to be millions dollars of damage all down the strip."
At least six people were killed in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg after a pre-dawn storm leveled much of the community of 9,000 people.
In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.
The storms left much of the small eastern Kansas town of Harveyville in rubble. Earlier reports from authorities indicated that three people had been critically injured, but that was lowered to one by midday.
Corey Mead, lead forecaster at the U.S. Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said a broad cold front was slamming into warm, humid air over much of the eastern half of the nation.
From Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, at least 16 tornado sightings were reported from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky, according to the storm center, an arm of the National Weather Service.
Jennifer Verhaalen, a long-term resident at the Hillbilly Inn Motel in downtown Branson, said she saw a white funnel cloud followed by a wall of rain as the storm closed in on the town around 1 a.m.
She said she retreated to a back bedroom with her husband as the storm slammed into two other hotel buildings tearing the roof off one.
Across the road, a strip mall lay in tatters, its roof missing and several walls collapsed. As the sun rose Wednesday, business owners picked through the remains of their stores. About 170 boats and several docks were destroyed on Table Rock Lake.
Keith and Glenna Bartley, tourists from Kingsport, Tenn., said staff at the Grand Victorian Hotel where they were staying ushered them to the basement around 1:30 a.m.
Branson has long been a tourist destination for visitors attracted to the beauty of the surrounding Ozarks. But the city rose to prominence in the 1990s because of its theaters, which drew country music stars including Merle Haggard and Crystal Gale as well as other musical celebrities such as Chubby Checker and Andy Williams.
It is about 110 miles southeast of Joplin, which was devastated by a monstrous twister last May that killed 161 people. Memories of the disaster fueled residents and guests to quickly take cover after the sirens sounded early Wednesday.
"I think so many people from Branson went over to help in Joplin and having seen that, it was fresh on our minds," said Presley, the mayor whose family owns the Presleys' Theater on the main strip. "We all reached for our loved ones a little sooner and got to the basement a little faster."
Town leaders insisted Wednesday that Branson remains open for business, suggesting that any repairs and rebuilding would happen in a matter of days.
Farther north, rescue crews waited for sunrise to begin searching a trailer park south of Buffalo where at least one person was killed after an apparent twister slammed the area.
Lt. Dana Eagan of the Dallas County Sheriff's Office said 13 people at the park were hurt and the entire town was without power. Buffalo is about 35 miles north of Springfield.
Tornado season normally starts in March, but it isn't unusual to see severe storms earlier in the year. Forecasters can seldom assess how serious a season will be because twisters are so unpredictable. This year, two people were killed by separate tornadoes in Alabama in January, and preliminary reports have showed 95 tornadoes struck that month.
In neighboring Kansas, the National Weather Service reported brief tornado touchdowns southwest of Hutchinson, and Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of emergency.
The system also skirted northern Arkansas, bringing gusts of up to 60 mph in the northwest. A wall cloud, which often produces twisters, was reported in Cherokee Village, where trees were scattered along roads, the weather service said. Residents of Clay County in northeastern Arkansas reported hail the size of golf balls, while half dollar-sized hail was reported in Mountain Home.
In northern Oklahoma, gusts of up to 80 mph flipped trailers and damaged homes near Cherokee.