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UPDATE: Confirmed tornado in Branson, 9 dead in Midwest

A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to small towns in Illinois and Kansas. At least 9 people were killed.
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) - A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to small towns in Illinois and Kansas. At least 9 people were killed.

The National Weather Service has confirmed an EF2 tornado hit the area at 1:13am.

The twister rolled through Branson 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. More than 30 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.

"If it was a week later, it'd be a different story," said Bill Tirone, assistant general manager for the 530-room Hiltons of Branson and the Branson Convention Center, where windows were shattered and some rooms had furniture sucked away by high winds.

Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety as the storm raged.

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, right 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 6 people were killed in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg after a 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, and at least three people were critically injured in the small eastern Kansas town of Harveyville.

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, 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.

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 theater district, which drew country music stars and other music celebrities including the Osmond twins and Andy Williams. It is about 110 miles southeast of Joplin, which was devastated by a monstrous twister last May that killed 161 people.

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 after an apparent tornado struck Harveyville.

The declaration covered Wabaunsee County, southwest of Topeka.

The governor's office said one person was critically injured, several homes and a church were damaged and trees and power lines were down.

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.

Tornado warnings and watches were posted for most of Kentucky and a large portion of Kentucky.
This is the radar image showing the tight rotation passing almost right over Branson at 1:30 AM. The small notch just above Branson shows the rotation associated with the tornado itself


No damage reported in Ark. from storm system

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - No major damage has been reported as the storm system that struck southwest Missouri skirted the northern part of Arkansas.

The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management says it's received no reports of damages as of 6 a.m. Wednesday.

The National Weather Service says a wall cloud was reported in Cherokee Village early Wednesday and that trees were on the roadways. In Clay County in northeastern Arkansas, spotters reported hail the size of golf balls, while half-dollar-sized hail was reported in Mountain Home.

Wind with gusts of up to 60 mph was reported in northwest Arkansas as the storm made its way across the state.

In southwest Missouri, one person died and dozens were injured when the storm struck. Branson's popular downtown district was also hit, damaging the city's famous theaters.

4 injured, 1 dead in Barry County, MO

According to Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly, a possible tornado touched down on Farm Rd 1102 just north of Cassville off Business 37 Tuesday night.

Several trailer houses were damaged or destroyed along with other houses in the area sustaining major damage. One person was killed after being thrown out of a trailer, while four others were injured during the storm.

Sheriff Epperly said that a semi was also overturned on HWY 37 just west of where the mobile homes and houses were destroyed and damaged.


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