By JIM SALTER
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 a small town in Kansas. At least four people were killed in Illinois and Missouri.
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. 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 three people were killed in the southern Illinois city of Harrisburg after a storm swept through shortly before dawn. 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.
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.
ADDITONAL COVERAGE FROM THE AP
Branson hospital treated 32 people after tornado
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) - A hospital in Branson treated 32 people in the hours after a tornado hit the tourist destination.
A spokeswoman for Skaggs Regional Medical Center says most of those treated early Tuesday suffered only cuts and bruises. Six of the injured were still being treated about 8 a.m. Tuesday.
One person who was injured when a roof collapsed was transferred to a Springfield hospital.
Spokeswoman Michelle Leroux (LUH-row) says the hospital's urgent care department treated four people for minor injuries.
The hospital was not damaged. Leroux says power was out at two non-clinical buildings but otherwise the hospital is operating normally.
Earlier, the National Weather Service reported brief tornado touchdowns southwest of Hutchinson, Kan.
Branson tornado Facebook page a hit after storm
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) - More than 1,300 people overnight became fans of a Branson tornado information page on Facebook created in January by a University of Missouri Extension Service employee in anticipation of such a storm.
Greene County Extension spokesman David Burton says he created three Facebook pages similar to ones for last year's Joplin tornado and Missouri floods to get information to people and allow them to ask questions.
Burton says the number of people who had clicked "like" on the Branson page went from two on Tuesday to 50 at 5 a.m. It hit 1,300 by 8 a.m., and 15 minutes later the number was nearing 2,000 and rising at the rate of dozens per minute.
Burton also created tornado pages for Springfield and Greene County.
Buffalo, Mo., area sustains heavy damage
BUFFALO, Mo. (AP) - Severe weather packing high winds and at least one tornado swept across southern Missouri early Wednesday, killing three people and causing large damage to Branson's entertainment strip.
The deaths were reported in the areas of Cassville and Buffalo in southwest Missouri and about 280 miles to the east near the town of Leora, in far southeast Missouri. The victims' identities have not been released.
In Branson, an apparent tornado moved across the city's entertainment strip, damaging hotels and music theaters. There were no reported fatalities but more than 30 people were injured.
Dale Moreland, director of emergency management for Stoddard County in southeast Missouri, said one man was killed when a mobile home near Leora was hit by the storm about 4:30 a.m.
"A man and a woman were in the mobile home, and it was lifted off the foundation and rolled about 200 feet," Moreland said. A woman in the home was hospitalized. He said 13 to 15 other homes were damaged in the area where the apparent tornado cut a path estimated at about 9 miles long and a half-mile wide.
"It's just a mess. There are several farm buildings down, power lines are down everywhere. There are trees across the road," he said.
A tornado also killed one person and injured about a dozen other people earlier Wednesday in an area around a mobile home park south of Buffalo in Dallas County, said Jason Wendlandt, director of Dallas County Emergency Management.
"The mobile home park is completely devastated,' he said. "There are some homes that are completely flattened with pieces thrown everywhere," Wendlandt said as he surveyed the damage with a team from the National Weather Service. He said the NWS confirmed the damage was from a tornado.
"Three homes were down there at one end of the mobile home park, and we are unable to determine where one started and one stopped," he said.
At least half of the homes in the area were destroyed, and at least 13 people sought medical care.
Utility crews were also working to restore power to the town of about 3,000 and area schools are closed.
Barry County Sheriff Mike Epperly said one person died after being thrown from a mobile home north of Cassville. He said several homes in the area were also damaged or destroyed and that a semi tractor trailer overturned on Missouri Highway 37.
Mo. gov. declares emergency after fatal storms
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a disaster because of severe storms that caused significant damage in the southern Missouri.
Nixon issued a disaster declaration Wednesday. The declaration allows the State Emergency Management Agency, Missouri State Highway Patrol and other state agencies to help local officials with emergency response. Shelters also have been set up for residents affected by the storms in Branson, Buffalo, Kimberling City and Lebanon.
The governor's office says initial reports indicate injuries and widespread damage in southern Missouri, including significant damage to business and tourist areas in Branson. The severe weather started Tuesday night and continued into the early morning Wednesday.
3 Walmart stores hit by storms in Mo., Ill.
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) - Severe storms that swept through Missouri and Illinois damaged three Walmart stores, two in Missouri and one in Illinois.
Walmart spokeswoman Dianna Gee said the company's stores in Branson and Lebanon, Mo., sustained roof damage that was considered minor. The Walmart store in Harrisburg, Ill., sustained significant water and roof damage.
Gee said each of the stores followed emergency procedures when the storms hit early Wednesday, and that no injuries were reported.
Walmart was still assessing damage at all the stores Wednesday morning.
She said cleanup was under way at the stores, and that the stores would reopen "as quickly as possible."
Branson tourism officials positive after storm
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) - Branson tourism officials were putting a positive spin on conditions Wednesday, saying most of the damage from a tornado was cosmetic and wouldn't prevent most shows from going on.
Branson Area Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Mary Jane Rice says February is generally a slow time, and most of the big-name entertainers generally don't get there until later in the spring.
Rice says she and her co-workers are telling people who call with concerns about the storm damage that Branson is open, and most of the attractions are still available for people who want to come there.
Much of the damage she had seen involved broken windows and destroyed awnings and neon signs. She estimated most of the destruction would be cleaned up within a few days.
Dozens of homes damaged in Kimberling City area
KIMBERLING CITY, Mo. (AP) - The storms that hit southern Missouri damaged dozens of homes in the Kimberling City area.
Kimberling City--Stone County Presiding Commissioner Dennis Wood said up to about 60 homes were damaged by storms early Wednesday in the Kimberling City area. He said four people were hurt, but their injuries did not appear to be serious serious.
Connie Gutting, manager of the Kimberling Inn Resort, said the resort was full of anglers preparing for a large fishing tournament planned for Thursday.
Gutting told the Springfield News Leader that (http://sgfnow.co/x6oedQ ) the tornadoes destroyed the inn's three docks and damaged many of the boats that tournament participants had brought with them for the tournament, which has been canceled.
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com
Mo. gov. activates National Guard after storms
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Gov. Jay Nixon has activated the National Guard to assist with coordination and recovery in storm-damaged southern Missouri.
National Guard officials said Wednesday about 50 members will also help provide additional security in the Branson area, where high winds damaged numerous buildings.
Nixon issued a disaster declaration Wednesday and says state agencies are working with local officials to coordinate recovery operations and meet the needs of residents affected by the storms.
A violent weather system moved into Missouri late Tuesday and blasted its way across the southern tier into early Wednesday. Three deaths, dozens of injuries and widespread damage were reported from the southwest to the Bootheel.