US Midwest tonados kill 9

2012-02-29 20:32

Chicago - A massive winter storm unleashed a string of tornados that cut a swathe of destruction across the US Midwest, killing at least nine people and threatening scores more as it pushed eastward Wednesday.

The town of Harrisburg, Illinois was ripped apart by a massive twister that stayed on the ground for miles, striking while most were still sleeping at around 04:30 (10:30 GMT.)

"We've got homes toppled, cars thrown in lakes. You can't imagine how devastating it is until you're there," Harrisburg mayor Eric Gregg told CNN.

"In small communities it's just heart breaking - we all know each other, we all care very much about each other."

Rescue crews were digging through the rubble to search for survivors and Gregg said he hoped the toll in his town of 10 000 people did not rise above the five bodies already recovered. Dozens more were injured.

"We're basically out there pulling - going, you know, piece by piece, pulling material off of the top of each other to try to make sure we're not missing anyone," Gregg said.

"We're very hopeful that we can find more survivors."

The National Weather Service has received 18 reports of tornados since the storm began on Tuesday, beginning in Nebraska and Kansas, then moving eastward to Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.

The weather service warned that severe thunderstorms would continue to pound Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

"The combination of warm and humid air with very strong winds may promote the development of a few long-lived thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes, some of which could be strong, along with swaths of damaging wind," the weather service warned.

The governor of Illinois activated the state's emergency operations system and was headed to Harrisburg to tour the damage.

"Our hearts go out to their families and the many others who were injured or suffered a devastating loss," Governor Pat Quinn said.

"The state of Illinois is committed to doing everything possible to help these communities respond and recover from this disaster."

The governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency after at least three people were killed by tornadoes which ripped across the southern portion of the state, causing extensive damage in the towns of Branson, Buffalo, Cassville, Lebanon and Oak Ridge.

"As we did throughout 2011's numerous emergencies, the state of Missouri will assist at every stage of this response to keep Missouri families safe and help communities recover and rebuild," Governor Jay Nixon said in a statement.

Another fatality was reported in Waubunsee, Kansas, the weather service said.

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