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Deadly Twisters Hit the South and Midwest

At least 27 people are killed and thousands of homes destroyed. This tornado season is shaping up to be one of the most active.

April 04, 2006|Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

CHINA GROVE, Tenn. — Eva Witmer heard the tornado rumbling and whistling over the wheat fields to the west. So she and her family gathered on the floor of a central bathroom. They clasped arms and closed their eyes.

In seconds, the wind ripped their shelter away and scattered it across the fields, leaving them huddled under a lightening-scarred sky. But unlike other victims of Sunday nights storms -- including two of Witmer's neighbors -- they were alive.

"You just felt God's presence," said Witmer, who like a third of the residents in this tiny farming community is a Mennonite. "And you felt that he was a mighty God -- powerful."

Small towns across the Midwest and the South were pummeled by thunderstorms, tornadoes and hail the size of grapefruits. At least 27 people were killed and thousands of homes destroyed, a tally shocking even in areas where tornado sirens are a spring ritual.

The damage was most severe in Tennessee, where 23 people died, more than 80 were injured and nearly 2,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Homes were ripped off their foundations, whole trees were lifted up with their root balls, and tin roofs and propane tanks were scattered across fields.

The storms -- the result of a cold front from the Northwest clashing with unseasonably hot, moist weather in the Southeast -- also swept 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.

In Arkansas, 11 tornadoes were reported in eight counties, leaving 52 injured. Marmaduke, a town of 1,200, was the worst hit. At least 130 homes and 25 mobile homes were destroyed and between 400 and 500 residences 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," he said.

In Missouri, severe storms and tornadoes swept across the east-central and southeast part of the state.

But the most fatalities were seen in western Tennessee, along a 25-mile swath from Newbern, about 80 miles northeast of Memphis, east to Bradford.

Eight people were killed in Gibson County and 15 in Dyer County. More Tennessee residents were lost than in any series of tornadoes since March 1952.

This tornado season is shaping up to be one of the most active, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. There already have been 351 reports of tornadoes this year. Over the last decade, the average number of confirmed tornadoes for the same period is 140.

"But we're comparing tornado reports, which are probably inflated, with confirmed tornados for previous years," said Daniel McCarthy, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the prediction center, who estimated that the actual number of tornados so far this year was probably closer to 150 to 170.

On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen appealed to President Bush to declare Dyer and Gibson counties federal disaster areas.

In Gibson County, searchers found the bodies of one family -- a husband and wife and their two children -- 150 yards from their home.

In China Grove, at least a dozen homes appeared to have been destroyed. About a third of the community's residents are members of a Mennonite community that came here 10 years ago from east Tennessee.

Mennonites here said that as part of their beliefs they did not rely on insurance when disasters strike, looking instead to communal help.

By Monday evening, more than 100 Mennonite volunteers had descended on China Grove from as far away as Pennsylvania. A dozen of them were swarming around the exposed second floor of Oscar Yoder's brick house. Bearded men with suspenders joined women in long, plain dresses and bonnets to scoop up debris with shovels.

"This is a challenge," said Yoder, a carpenter. "But the Lord has been really fruitful in providing for our needs." Yoder and his family were visiting cousins when the tornado ripped part of his steeply-raked roof off, but he said that much of the house remained inhabitable and he planned to move back in Monday evening.

Others lost more.

A few miles down the road, Connie Flowers stood stunned amid the flattened remains of five houses that her extended family used to occupy. Her sister-in-law and another relative were killed. Other family members were recovering from their injuries in nearby hospitals.

Twisted sheet metal hung in the broken branches of trees. Cars and siding and wood was strewn 200 yards down a sun-dappled green meadow.

"I don't know what to do after this," she said. "I don't know how you start."

Equally hard hit was the larger town of nearby Bradford. Resident Crystal McCormick, 23, stood outside her badly damaged bungalow Monday, talking with neighbors and taking stock. McCormick's home had been deemed uninhabitable by firefighters, and every house on her rural road had been mangled as far as she could see.

She heard that a family of four across town died in their home. So did the owner of the Dairy Bar, a local gossip spot. The police department building was a jumbled pile of walls and scuffed furniture. The only clue of its former purpose was a bent sign: "Reserved Parking Chief."

McCormick was unsure of her next step. "My mother told me to get a trailer. I said 'I don't want a trailer. I've seen what [a tornado] does to a house.' "

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