BRANSON — A powerful storm system bearing a string of possible tornadoes left at least one person dead and dozens injured as it tore roofs from buildings, upturned trailers and wreaked chaos across a broad swath of the Midwest.
Forecasters had predicted conditions ripe for tornadoes before the storms broke out around midnight Tuesday, saving most of their furor for Kansas and Missouri. High winds, severe storms and tornadoes were possible in several southern states as the system tracked eastward Wednesday.
An apparent tornado left a trail of destruction in the tourist hub of Branson, where the storm seemed to have hopscotched up Highway 76, scattering the area with debris, uprooting road signs and heavily damaging buildings in the city's famous theater district.
Skaggs Regional Medical Center in Branson treated 32 people in its emergency department in the hours after the storm, mostly for cuts and bruises, said Michelle Leroux, spokeswoman for the hospital. Power was out at two non-clinical buildings but otherwise the hospital was operating normally, Leroux said.
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 hotel's basement around 1:30 a.m., where they cowered as the storm barreled over the hotel.
Branson has long been a touristy outdoor destination for visitors from across the Midwest and South who come to see the beauty of the surrounding Ozarks. But the city rose to prominence in the 1990s largely due to the theater district, where venues featured the star power of country music and celebrities including the Osmonds and Andy Williams.
Farther north in Missouri, rescue crews awaited sunrise to begin scouring a trailer park south of Buffalo, where at least one person was killed after an apparent tornado slammed the area.
Lt. Dana Eagan of the Dallas County Sheriff's Office said the storm left 13 people at the park injured and knocked out power to all of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield.
The National Weather Service typically sends teams in the hours and days following a storm of this size to determine if a tornado struck.
Tornado season normally starts in March, but it isn't unusual to see severe storms earlier in the year. Forecasters have a particularly difficult time assessing how serious a season will be in part because twisters are so unpredictable. In January, two people were killed by separate tornadoes in Alabama, and preliminary reports have showed 95 tornadoes struck that month.
In Kansas, the National Weather Service reported brief tornado touchdowns southwest of Hutchinson, and Gov. Sam Brownback declared a state of emergency after an apparent tornado struck Harveyville.
The declaration covered Wabaunsee County, southwest of Topeka, Kan. The governor's office said one person was critically injured, several homes and a church were damaged and trees and power lines were down.
The system also skirted northern Arkansas, bringing gusts of up to 60 mph in the northwest. A wall cloud was reported in Cherokee Village, Ark., where trees were scattered along roads, the weather service said. Residents of Clay County in northeastern Arkansas reported hail the size of golf balls, while half-dollar-sized hail was reported in Mountain Home, Ark.
In northern Oklahoma, gusts of up to 80 mph flipped trailers and damaged homes near Cherokee.
Tornado warnings and watches were posted for a large portion of Kentucky.