Branson, Missouri, March 1: Tornados spawned by a powerful storm system roared through middle America in the early morning darkness Wednesday, flattening entire blocks of homes in small-town Illinois and Kansas and killing at least 12 people.
An apparent twister cut through Branson, Missouri, 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 country music theaters dangerously close to the start of the heavy tourism season.
At least 37 people were reported hurt, mostly with cuts and bruises.
At least six people were killed in the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg after a storm leveled much of the community of 9,000 people.
In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, with two more fatalities reported in other areas of the state.
Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee.
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, 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.
In Branson, a country music showcase, it was difficult to believe there weren’t more serious injuries. A small mall was nearly completely demolished.
The Legends Theater, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater and the Branson Variety Theater all sustained significant damage.
The Veterans Memorial Museum was in shambles, and a small military jet that sat in front of the museum was blown apart.
Some of the most popular theaters were barely damaged. The popular Presley’s Country Jubilee was virtually unscathed, as was Yakov Smirnoff’s theater.
A manager at the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show expected to cancel just three or four shows before performances resume next week.
Other venues weren’t so lucky. Branson Variety Theater’s 1,600-seat auditorium was intact, but the lobby and gift shop were nearly destroyed.
It could be almost two months before the theater’s popular Twelve Irish Tenors and Shake, Rattle & Roll shows perform again.
Meanwhile, late winter storms forced school and road closures from Seattle to upstate New York, but the snow was largely welcomed in California as it suffers through one of the driest winters in history.
Officials issued avalanche warnings in parts of California, and a firefighter was killed when a truck slid off a hail-covered highway early Wednesday.
For some areas, such as New York state’s capital, it was the first significant snow of an unusually dry season.
The blast from the Gulf of Alaska was expected to bring up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) of snow at the highest elevations of the northern Sierra Nevada, delighting skiers and the 28 million Californians who depend on snowmelt to meet their water needs.