Storms kill at least 27 people

Tornadoes, rain, hail over eight states destroy hundreds of houses


ATLANTA -- Rescuers searched through damaged areas after tornadoes, thunderstorms and hail in eight states over the weekend killed at least 27 people, injured dozens and destroyed hundreds of houses, officials said.

The worst hit was Tennessee, where 23 people died. Preliminary investigations suggested that the path of destruction was about 15 miles long, running in a straight line from the small town of Bogota in Dyer County to Skullbone in Gibson County in the northwest corner of the state.

Storms also crashed through parts of Iowa, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. At least three deaths were reported in Missouri, and a man died in southern Illinois when a roof collapsed.

Four damage assessment crews toured Gibson County in Tennessee yesterday while the Red Cross and the Salvation Army provided shelter and food for the homeless.

"It's probably the largest weather disaster we've had in years," said Donnie Smith, an official with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, who said that thunderstorms had not hit the state so hard since 1951.

"The rural is not the rural anymore," he said. "Used to, in the old days, when tornadoes came down, they didn't hurt anyone. Now all these woodlands are populated."

Joe Shepard, sheriff of Gibson County, said 200 to 250 homes were destroyed in his county.

"It's like someone dropped an atomic bomb on the county," he said. "I've been a sheriff for 20 years and I've never seen anything like it. Things that sit out in the yard - tin roofs, clothes, cars, propane tanks - are all over the place."

In the rural areas, Shepard said, searchers had to venture into the fields and pick through debris for victims. One family - a husband and wife and their two children - were found 150 yards from their home.

"It's just devastating," Shepard said. "These are people we know and see every day."

He said he doubted that many of the small towns would be able to rebuild.

"These are just such rural areas," he said. "These homes have been there a long time, but now there's nothing left."

"This is pretty bad, probably the worst this county has ever seen," said Benjamin Edwards, an emergency operations officer with Gibson County, which had eight confirmed fatalities and 37 injured, four critical. "The storm has completely destroyed homes and buildings in the northern part of the county."

Almost half of the buildings in the core of Bradford's downtown district were damaged, Edwards said, with the more extensive destruction in the outlying areas of town.

The storm hit Gibson County between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, causing extensive damage in Bradford, Rutherford, Dyer and Yorkville.

There was no immediate estimate of the costs of the damage or of the rescue operation under way in several states. Efforts were being hampered by downed power lines and debris that clogged the rural roads.

In Arkansas, 11 tornadoes were reported in eight counties.

Marmaduke, a town of 1,200 people, was the worst hit. At least 130 homes and 25 mobile homes were destroyed and 400 to 500 were damaged, said David Maxwell, deputy director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management.

"It could be that as many as half the homes in the city are destroyed," Maxwell said.

There were no fatalities, but there were 47 injuries, two of which were serious.

This tornado season is shaping up as particularly active, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

So far, there have been 351 preliminary tornado reports this year. The average for the same period over the past decade is 140, said Daniel McCarthy, the warning coordination meteorologist at the center.

Jenny Jarvie and Michael Muskal write for the Los Angeles Times.

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