By Doyle Rice, Jess Rollins and Larry Copeland
A late-winter tornado outbreak that pounded seven states Wednesday lashed the country music resort city of Branson, Mo., flattened towns in several other states and killed at least 12 people.
Communities in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee felt the impact of storms that spawned at least 20 tornadoes. Six people died in Illinois, three in Missouri and three in Tennessee.
More violent weather could come today and Friday in parts of the central and southern USA.
"Another storm will move in behind it in the south-central U.S.," said National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro. "It will drag warm, moist air up from the Gulf of Mexico to help produce yet another round of severe weather on Friday from Ohio to parts of the Gulf Coast states."
Forecasting specific severe outbreaks beyond Friday isn't possible, however. But "we're now entering the time of year -- March and April -- when the likelihood of tornadoes picks up," said meteorologist Russ Schumacher of Colorado State University.
It was a jolting early moment in the USA's tornado season after a brutal year of twisters in 2011. Last year, 550 Americans died in tornadoes, according to the Storm Prediction Center. That was the deadliest toll since 1925, when 794 people died.
Among places hardest hit Wednesday was Harrisburg, Ill., a town of about 10,000 where at least six people were killed and more than 100 were injured. "This morning the city of Harrisburg had a horrific event," Mayor Eric Gregg said, adding that the town was "in search and recovery mode."
Gregg noted that many residents of Harrisburg helped Joplin, Mo., last May after a tornado leveled that city, killing 161.
"Many of us went there to help, and today we find ourselves in need," Gregg said. He vowed that his city will bounce back. "We will rebuild this city," he said. "We will make this city stronger. This will not stop us. "
The National Weather Service said the Harrisburg tornado unleashed winds of up to 170 mph.
Branson sustained significant damage, but tourism officials there put a positive spin on conditions, saying most of the damage was cosmetic and wouldn't prevent most shows from going on. Branson Area Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Mary Jane Rice said February is generally a slow time and most big-name entertainers don't arrive until spring.
Only five or six of the city's 50 theaters, 12-15 of about 200 hotels and five or six of about 100 attractions sustained significant damage, said Jean Mueller, a Branson spokeswoman. "We haven't begun to put a dollar amount on the damage," she said. "We were very fortunate."
Rice said she and co-workers are telling callers that most Branson attractions remain open. Much of the damage she had seen involved broken windows and destroyed awnings and neon signs, and she estimated that most of the destruction would be cleaned up within a few days.
"We are confident that Branson will be back bigger and better than ever," said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
Dozens of homes were damaged in Kimberling City, west of Branson. Darby Cataline was not home when the storm crushed his home. "If I had been, I probably wouldn't have made it out alive," he said, adding that he'd recently finished remodeling the three-bedroom home. As he spoke, his months-old insulation filled nearby trees like snow. "Now, I'm gonna have to tear the rest down. There's nothing left here ... nothing left."
As if to demonstrate the random nature of the storm, the small double-wide trailer home of Cataline's neighbor, Guy Warneke, was left untouched. Warneke said he was awakened by the sound of his carport slamming against the trees. Neither his home nor his new Chevy Tahoe got a scratch.
According to the Storm Prediction Center, the Midwest outbreak produced more than 250 reports of large hail and damaging winds in addition to the 20 tornadoes.
Before this eruption, February had been relatively calm for tornadoes after a wild January during which at least 95 twisters were reported in the USA. That was the third most-active January since official record-keeping begin in 1950, says meteorologist Steve Bowen of Aon Benfield, a global insurance firm. Elsewhere:
- The small eastern Kansas town of Harveyville took a direct hit from an apparent tornado that injured 11 people, three critically, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Engholm said.
- At least two people were reported injured and about a dozen homes damaged in and around Hodgenville, Ky., when a tornado touched down at least three times, said Chris Jackson, the LaRue County 911 coordinator.
- Three people were killed in eastern Tennessee -- two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County
- In Newburgh, Ind., Warrick County Chief Deputy Sheriff Marvin Heilman said no injuries were reported after the town was hit by a possible tornado around 6 a.m.