Storms kill 4, damage Branson theater district

By Jim Salter

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 8:25 a.m. MST

A stop sign, that was bent over by severe storms, stands on a street corner in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012.

Orlin Wagner, Associated Press

BRANSON, Mo. — 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. 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.

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