March 1, 2012 / 2:01 AM / 5 years ago

At least nine killed as tornadoes strike Midwest

<p>A damaged hotel is seen on the Strip in Branson, Missouri, February 29, 2012.Sarah Conard</p>

ST LOUIS, Missouri (Reuters) - Suspected tornadoes killed at least six people in an Illinois town and three more in Missouri as powerful storms ripped through the Midwest, obliterating homes, churches and businesses across six states, authorities said on Wednesday.

Six of the deaths occurred in Harrisburg, Illinois, according to Governor Pat Quinn's office, citing the Saline County coroner. Earlier, state officials said the coroner counted 10 fatalities in Harrisburg.

A storm temporarily closed the famous entertainment strip in the music city of Branson, Missouri, where country music and other performers draw thousands of people a day to shows.

The hardest hit community appeared to be Harrisburg, Illinois, where television images from the town of 10,000 showed collapsed buildings and overturned trucks, with mattresses and other debris caught in tree branches.

"(The tornado) cut a path of destruction that was just devastating," Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg told CNN.

"There are semis toppled, cars thrown into lakes, and everything else. It's nothing like I've ever seen and hope to never see again," Gregg said.

A Walmart and another shopping center were smashed, an apartment building was hit and a hospital was damaged, and the city sustained millions of dollars in damage, the mayor said. There was a roughly one-quarter mile long trail of damage in Harrisburg.

A separate tornado killed a person in a mobile home park in rural Buffalo, Missouri, and another 13 were injured by a suspected twister, said Lamont Swanson, coroner for Dallas County.

"There was very extensive damage in that trailer park," Swanson said. "I saw one residence completely destroyed."

A man in Stoddard County in southeast Missouri was killed when his mobile home was destroyed. His wife was severely injured.

"It looks like it just exploded," Dale Moreland of the county's emergency management service said of their home.

A 70-year-old man died in Cassville, Missouri when he was thrown from his mobile home by high winds, Barr County Sheriff Mick Epperly said in a news release.

The governors of Illinois, Missouri and Kansas declared emergencies.

<p>A damaged Taco Bell restaurant is seen on the Strip in Branson, Missouri, February 29, 2012.Sarah Conard</p>

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said there was "widespread damage in several communities," including in the tourist mecca Branson.

The violent weather tracked through Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, according to the National Weather Service. There were tornado watches issued for parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ohio. The Weather Service said there had been preliminary reports of 18 tornadoes touching down across the region since late Tuesday.

Last year, tornado outbreaks caused 550 U.S. deaths, one of the deadliest in the nation's history and the most in nearly a century, according to the Weather Service. The highest death tolls were from an April outbreak in Alabama and Mississippi that claimed 364 lives, and a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22 that killed 161 people.

Twisters caused $28.7 billion in damage last year, according to the U.S. National Climatic Data Center.

There had been two tornado-related deaths in 2012 before Tuesday, both in Alabama on January 23.

Slideshow (10 Images)

The violent weather tore into Kentucky on Wednesday, injuring at least eight people, one critically, said state emergency management spokesman Buddy Rogers.

"We're getting hammered," Rogers said. "This is a pretty widespread weather event."

Rogers said at least five homes caught fire, the roof of an elementary school gymnasium was blown off in Muhlenberg County but no students were injured.

Several homes were destroyed and others damaged in and around Newburgh, Indiana, emergency officials said, though there were no deaths or injuries reported.

The suspected tornado was a half-mile wide on the ground, based on the damage, said Madison Seib, a public information officer in Warrick County, Indiana. Warning sirens alerted residents to take cover, she said.

The storm whipped through Branson, Missouri early on Wednesday morning, damaging the theater and restaurant district known as "the strip" and knocking out power to most of the community.

"We are still in shock," said Rose Atchley in the city administrator's office. "The strip is totally shut off. There is lots of debris here and there. We are struggling along."

If the storm had struck earlier, when people were attending shows, the toll could have been worse, Atchley said.

Kansas officials said a suspected tornado inflicted heavy damage to Harveyville near the state capital of Topeka, critically injuring three people. Eight others suffered minor injuries.

Reporting by David Bailey, James Kelleher, Kevin Murphy, Bruce Olson and Carey Gillam; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Greg McCune

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