As the sun rose Wednesday, authorities and survivors got their first clear view of the damage wrought by severe storms that killed a total of nine people in Illinois and Missouri and caused widespread damage in Kansas.
At least two tornadoes touched down in Kansas, one of which leveled nearly half of the small town of Harveyville southwest of Topeka.
Winds raked eastern Kansas on Tuesday night, flattening utility pools, ripping off roofs and toppling high-profile vehicles.
In Kansas, it’s a "big event for February," National Weather Service meteorologist Robb Lawson said. "Good Lord."
An EF2 tornado about 150 yards wide slammed into Harveyville, a town of 267 people, just after 9 p.m. Tuesday. State officials said one person was critically injured and 13 others were hurt in the tornado, which reduced numerous homes to rubble and knocked electricity and gas service out to the entire city.
Gov. Sam Brownback and Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, Kansas’ adjutant general, will tour Harveyville on Thursday afternoon.
The Harveyville United Methodist Church, which has been at the same site since 1885, was little more than a mound of debris and rubble on Wednesday morning. Its organ lay in a shattered heap across the street.
The church basement acts as a community storm shelter, but pastor Dennis Irwin said no one had time to get there. The basement had only a few broken light fixtures. The church added stained-glass windows to its worship space about 10 years ago.
On Wednesday morning, those windows were gone.
“It was a beautiful white country church,” Irwin said. “The church is gone, but the congregation’s not.”
The church will be rebuilt, he said.
“It’s too much part of the community not to rebuild,” he said.
A team of Salvation Army emergency disaster service volunteers from Topeka has gone to Harveyville with a mobile kitchen to provide meals, snacks and drinks to first responders, survivors and cleanup crews. The Salvation Army will remain on the scene to identify ongoing needs in the community.
“We are here to serve in whatever way we can,” said Dee Smith, director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army. “And we will not leave until all the needs in Harveyville are met.”
The American Red Cross has also sent volunteers to Harveyville to provide meals and other support for families and emergency responders.
Deadly tornadoes elsewhere
At least nine people were killed by tornadoes that struck after sunset in Illinois and Missouri.
Six died in Harrisburg, a town of 9,000 in southern Illinois, where entire blocks were leveled by a tornado 200 yards wide. The tornado had winds of up to 170 miles an hour, earning an EF4 rating, the second-strongest on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
The winds were strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the Harrisburg Medical Center, leaving disheveled beds and misplaced furniture. The staff had enough warning to move the most endangered patients. Then they heard the walls collapse, officials said.
The hospital discharged patients who could go home or moved them to other medical facilities. But they also had to confront an influx of injured people.
Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother’s home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.
“She was conscious. I wouldn’t say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything,” he said. “She knew we were there.”
Mary Osman died a short time later.
In the country music resort of Branson, Mo., an apparent twister seemed to hopscotch up the city’s main roadway. 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 the intense winds shattered windows and sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
Three people died in Missouri, officials said. One person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.
A total of 16 tornadoes were reported in five states – including the first two February tornadoes to touch down in Nebraska since records began being kept in 1950.
At least one tornado touched down in Reno County, authorities said. It stayed on the ground for about five minutes before lifting southwest of Hutchinson.
One house sustained minor damage, and vehicles and stock trailers were flipped over, authorities said. A team from the Wichita branch of the weather service planned to conduct a damage assessment survey, Lawson said.
But tornadoes weren’t the only damaging form of severe weather Tuesday night.
Straight-line winds of more than 70 mph felled more than two dozen utility poles in McPherson County, knocking out power to Moundridge. The wooden poles were knocked down about two miles north of Moundridge on old Highway 81, said Dillard Webster; director of emergency management in McPherson County.
McPherson’s utility company provides electricity for Moundridge.
“Their trucks are out there repairing that line of poles ... and have been through the night,” Webster said Wednesday morning. “I don’t have an idea of how long it’s going to take. I do know it was pretty extensive for over a mile.”
One person was critically injured in Labette in southeastern Kansas, Lawson said. The victim has been transported to a Wichita hospital for treatment. Labette County Emergency Management is conducting a damage assessment survey to determine whether the three-mile wide damage path was the result of a short-lived tornado or straight-line winds.
"We do have a number of customers without power" in eastern Kansas, Westar spokeswoman Gina Penzig said Wednesday morning.
That included about 4,000 customers in southeast Kansas, she said.
Extensive damage was also reported at Strother Field in Cowley County, where winds of at least 60 mph were reported at 9 p.m. Winds of nearly 80 mph were reported west of Arkansas City in Sumner County, and damage to a house and garage were reported in Gueda Springs near the Oklahoma state line.
Utility poles were knocked down by strong winds in Kingman and Cowley counties.
Financial donations to the Salvation Army to assist tornado survivors in Harveyville are welcome. To donate by credit card, go to www.usc.salvationarmy.org or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY.
Checks may be mailed to the Salvation Army, 3637 Broadway, Kansas City, MO 64111. Please designate the donation “Harveyville Tornado.”
Contributing: Associated Press