Monday, May 07, 2007

Killer Kansas tornado wreaks chaos and destruction

Killer Kansas tornado wreaks chaos and destruction
By Carey Gillam

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas (Reuters) - Rescue crews on Sunday combed piles of debris where homes and businesses once stood in Greensburg, Kansas, in a meticulous search for survivors of a killer tornado.

By nightfall searchers had not found anyone else -- alive or dead -- in the rubble, leaving the twister's toll at eight dead in the tiny farming community of Greensburg and one dead in nearby Pratt County as a result of Friday night's twister. At least 50 people were injured, some critically.

A 10th person died and three people were injured on Saturday night when another tornado touched down in southwest Kansas not far from Greensburg.

"We didn't find any additional people today or bodies in the search and rescue effort," said Kansas Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson. "But we'll continue to search."

Some 90 percent of the businesses and homes in Greensburg, a town of about 1,800, were damaged or destroyed when the mile-wide tornado and winds of 165 mph (265 kph) ripped through.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Crystal Payton, in Greensburg on Sunday, compared the devastation to that wrought along the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

"This may be smaller in scope than Katrina ... but it is equally devastating," she said.

FEMA director R. David Paulison is scheduled to tour the area Monday. FEMA is working to set up trailers and support services in the area and has a hotline for residents to call for assistance.

Soldiers with the Kansas National Guard were also being deployed to help remove debris.

Air patrols were also conducting reconnaissance flights along the tornado's path to search for possible victims, stranded motorists and residents.

Greensburg resident Bruce Foster, 50, said he rode out the storm in the basement of a friend's house, huddling under a mattress with a group of neighbors.

"The house started shaking and dust was falling. Our ears started popping and then it got all calm," Foster said. "We went upstairs and the house was gone, all gone. There wasn't any furniture or anything."

President George W. Bush declared the community a major disaster area and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. "Our hearts are heavy for the loss of life in Greensburg, Kansas," Bush said on Sunday.

Kansans struggled to comprehend the losses. "They're still going through a little bit of shell shock," said Red Cross worker Ralph Rojas, who helped operate a shelter where about 50 Greensburg residents spent the night.

"There are still people looking for family and friends," Rojas said. "There is a major portion of the community just gone."

Greensburg's hospital and schools were among the buildings destroyed. The water tower next to the town's main tourist attraction -- the world's largest hand-dug well -- was knocked down. The nursing home was nearly leveled.

About 30 survivors were found in the remains of the hospital, according to Watson. "There was a warning in time for people to take cover so that helped," she said.

In addition to the tornado that touched down Friday night, at least three more hit the region Saturday night, the National Weather Service said.

One woman in Ottawa County, Kansas, was killed in the Saturday night storms, said Watson. She was staying in a camper near a lake when the twister hit. Three family members in the camper were injured.

Widespread flooding was also reported throughout central Kansas, closing parts of the Kansas turnpike. At least four counties issued disaster declarations due to the flooding.

The peak U.S. tornado season runs from March through early July; twisters kill an average of 70 Americans each year. The most violent single tornado appeared on March 18, 1925, killing 689 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.