A tornado ripped through southeastern Missouri before dawn, killing five people and causing widespread destruction, as the third in a series of deadly storms over the past two weeks struck the US heartland.
Forecasters are keeping a wary eye out for more extreme weather as this year’s early severe storm season continues. The storms have spawned dozens of tornadoes that have killed at least 63 people.
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The storm touched down in Bollinger County in the early hours of Wednesday. “I can confirm five fatalities,” Sheriff Casey Graham posted on social media.
He said search-and-rescue operations were continuing following “a significant tornado” that left downed trees and destroyed homes in its path. Trees were uprooted, homes turned into piles of splinters, and one building was flipped on its side.
“The damage is pretty widespread,” Sergeant Clark Parrott with the Missouri State Highway Patrol told reporters. “It’s just heartbreaking to see it.”
Josh Wells said the tornado tore half of the roof off his home and pushed in his bedroom wall. Luckily, he fled beforehand with his son to his sister’s home because it has a basement.
“We all ran down and huddled against the wall and my brother-in-law made it down just seconds before we heard the roaring sound of the wind and debris crashing around us,” he said.
Large areas of the midwestern and southern US are bracing for more storms that could bring additional twisters and hail storms. During the last several months, many regions of the US have grappled with challenges posed by extreme weather and an unending parade of winter storms.
Last week, strong storms generated 11 tornadoes that caused widespread destruction across numerous midwestern and southern states, killing at least 32 people.
In Missouri, emergency workers were attempting to clear debris in order to reach homes.
“It’s going to be a slow process but for now, it’s an active search and rescue,” Parrott said.
The tornado touched down at 3:30am (08:00 GMT) in a rural area of Bollinger County, about 80km (50 miles) south of the city of St Louis.
Images showed extensive damage to homes in the city of Glen Allen, 177km (110 miles) south of St Louis.
Justin Gibbs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) based in Kentucky, told The Associated Press the tornado travelled between 24-32km (15 to 20 miles) and remained on the ground for about 15 minutes.
The fact it took place in the early morning may have exacerbated the human toll.
“It’s definitely a nightmare from a warning standpoint,” Gibbs said. “It’s bad anytime, but it’s especially bad at 3:30 in the morning.”
Midwest tornadoes typically occur later in the spring, but this year’s early spate of severe weather continues a trend seen over the past few years, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at NWS’ Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
“Although we will likely have several relatively quiet days after the current weather system has moved east of the US, we are entering the time of the year where the potential for severe weather increases and much more of the US becomes at risk,” Bunting said.