HARRISBURG, Ill. — Kera Wise picked through the fragments of her aunt and uncle's tornado-ruined home with a determined hustle under clear skies that weather forecasters warned could again turn dark and dangerous.
Wise figured she had little time to waste Thursday as she stuffed photo albums and what few other items she could retrieve into plastic sacks, hell-bent on rounding up her aunt's prized trove of Elvis paraphernalia and Beanie Babies. With daylight about to fade roughly the same time she would be forced out by a curfew in southern Illinois' storm-savaged Harrisburg, she knew another dose of nasty weather could ruin whatever she couldn't salvage immediately.
"You just keep thinking, 'God, please don't let there be another tornado,'" said Wise, 35, whose aunt and uncle remained hospitalized in neighboring Indiana, her uncle in bad shape from bleeding on the brain, a collapsed lung, torn spleen and broken ribs.
Such was the scramble in devastated portions of Harrisburg, the 9,000-resident town sacked by a twister about 5 a.m. Wednesday that killed six people, many of them in the neighborhood where Wise's aunt and uncle live. The onslaught was part of a storm system that raked the Midwest and South, killing 13 people in four states.
Damaged communities tried to take advantage of the brief break in the weather Thursday, mindful of forecasts that severe storms were expected to roll through the region again sometime after midnight and linger into Friday.
The National Weather Service had warned that both regions would be slammed by a second wave of tornado activity before the weekend, but as dawn broke Friday, it appeared Harrisburg had been spared any major overnight storms.
"It's pretty quiet. There have been spits of rain, but that's about it," said Deanna Lindstrom at the National Weather Service's Paducah, Ky., office.
Weather service meteorologist Jayson Wilson noted the unpredictability of severe storm systems and cautioned vigilance across the region.
"If anything happens, it will be an isolated cell here and there," Wilson said.
"If there's a bull's eye, it's moved farther east, smack in the center of Kentucky and dipping into the center portion of Tennessee," he said. "It's a massive circle, but nowhere in that circle is southern Illinois," which he said probably will see thunderstorms.
Chris Broyles at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., warned there could be a "potentially significant tornado episode" in extreme southern Indiana, central Kentucky and north-central Tennessee. Boyle said the storms are expected to sprint across the country, reaching the Gulf Coast states by early evening.
The forecast in Harrisburg didn't much matter to Amanda Patrick, who lost her home Wednesday in the same twister that killed her beloved neighbors across Brady Street, the neighborhood where most of the fatalities occurred.
"I don't know what to tell you other than I take it one moment, one day at a time," Patrick, 31, said a day after riding out the storm in the bathtub she barely was able to crawl into for shelter before the twister hit.
She considers herself blessed, having thought the sirens that wailed as the tornado barreled down on her neighborhood were actually part of her dream. She awakened just minutes before the tornado hit and hours later couldn't stop sobbing over the neighbors she lost.
"I'm not crying as much now. I'm here right now, standing," she said Thursday. "Now, I will get up every time I hear a siren."
A couple blocks away, outside their four-bedroom home where two large oak trees still were atop the roof, Levi Fogle and Sarah Pearce had a sense of resignation and perhaps apathy about word that more storms were possible.
The National Weather Service listed Wednesday's twister as an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph. To Pearce, it couldn't get much worse.
"What more could any more of this do to my house?" said 21-year-old Pearce, who works with Fogle at the local Walmart that has been shuttered due to damage. The twister left the couple and their three young daughters unscathed.
"God held my house up, there's no doubt about that," she said as Fogle strummed a guitar, shaking it at times to jingle the glass fragments left inside the instrument from being in his car's backseat when the storm hit.
Wednesday's storms spawned at least 16 tornados reported Wednesday from Nebraska and Kansas across southern Missouri to Illinois and Kentucky. The dead included one killed in the Missouri town of Buffalo and two dead in the state's Cassville and Puxico areas. A Harveyville, Kan., man suffered fatal injuries after his home collapsed on him, and three more people were killed in eastern Tennessee.
In Tennessee, donated storage units were to be offered to families whose homes were damaged so they could protect possessions before the next round of storms.
The brother-in-law of a woman who was killed said he found her under some debris and held her hand until paramedics arrived.
George Jones and several relatives gathered Thursday at the shattered mobile home where Melissa Evans Beaty lived outside the small city of Crossville, about 110 miles east of Nashville. He said Beaty was alive and asking about her grandchildren after the twister passed. The children were all right, but Beaty later died, and her husband, Ricky, was taken to a Knoxville hospital with a fractured pelvis and severe head trauma, Jones said.
"We would give anything to have Lisa back," he said.
The couple's home was destroyed, with pieces wrapped around nearby trees.
Bunny Howe survived with her 9-year-old grandsons by climbing into a bathtub as she watched the wind pick up one of her horses in the backyard, then overturn part of a tractor-trailer in the front yard. That's when she got on top of the children and held the bathroom door shut with her feet.
"Ma, what are we going to do?'" she recalled the children asking her.
"We're going to pray," she told them.
The tornado tore off a wall of the Howes' garage and knocked a tree onto the roof.
After all that, Howe said, she's not overly concerned about storms predicted for Friday.
"What's it going to do?" she said. "Take the rest of the house down?"