BRANSON — The busy tourism season is just around the corner in Branson, and officials in the Missouri music mecca said Friday that the tornado that smashed through this week won't change that.
The EF2 tornado that struck around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday brought winds of up to 130 mph as the twister hopped along the Branson Strip, damaging about four dozen commercial structures, including six of the town's 50 theaters and 22 of the 200 hotels and motels.
Across Missouri, three people died and more than 100 were injured in the series of Leap Day tornadoes. No one died in Branson, but about three dozen people were hurt.
The timing of the storm was fortunate; the tornado hit mid-week in February, a slow time for visitors, so only a few thousand tourists were in town. Branson can host up to 60,000 tourists a night during peak season.
Nevertheless, the number of visitors will soon increase. Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the busy tourist season begins next week as several schools go on spring break. Then, on March 9, the College of the Ozarks will host the NAIA Division II national basketball championship, bringing in 32 teams and thousands of visitors.
"Branson is open for business," Berry said. "One of the most important ways people can help out in Branson is to plan a visit and come see us."
She noted that several of the most popular attractions escaped the tornado's wrath — Silver Dollar City, Showboat Branson Belle and many of the most popular theaters. Branson Landing, the downtown shopping area, reopened Friday after being closed for two days.
More than 6,000 Branson area electrical customers lost power in the storm; however, all but about 500 had the lights back on by Friday. Some of the powerless included a strip of theaters, keeping them from reopening.
Cleanup in Branson could take weeks. Officials were still assessing damage to homes, and it wasn't yet clear how many were damaged. Nineteen people stayed at a shelter set up at a recreation center.
Thousands of tons of debris must now be removed, and city officials are still formulating a plan to get rid of it. Residents are being told to place storm debris in the front of their property, but it could be weeks before it is hauled away.
Taney County animal control officers and volunteers are searching for displaced pets.
The community is getting a lot of help from volunteers and neighboring communities, including Joplin, the southwest Missouri town still recovering from a May 22 tornado that killed 161 people. Joplin sent police officers to help patrol the strip, and Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr pledged to provide any other help needed in Branson.
Berry said random people are showing up to help out. Among them was a young man from Arkansas. His elderly parents were at the Best Western when the tornado hit. Staff there helped protect them and find new shelter after the storm.
"The next day, their son came up with a chain saw to help clean up the Best Western property," Berry said. "He felt he owed them that for helping his parents."