Emergency personnel move one of two victims injured inside a mobile home toward an awaiting ambulance Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 in western McCracken County near Paducah, Ky. Three people in the home were injured. Waves of strong storms ripped roofs off homes, apartment buildings and a bank and destroyed several buildings in north-central Kentucky.(AP Photo/The Paducah Sun,John Wright )
BRANSON, Mo. -- 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.
The tornadoes were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday and was headed across the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys toward the Mid-Atlantic region.
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.