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Storms Deliver Blows Twister Rips Heart Of Berea, Ky.; Canoeists Flee Thunderstorm

Sun., April 21, 1996

Tornadoes chewed through communities from the Ohio Valley into the Deep South on Saturday and a violent thunderstorm forced hundreds to flee a qualifying meet for Olympics-bound canoeists.

“It’s just pathetic destruction,” said Clifford Kerby, mayor of Berea, Ky., where a twister ripped a path right through the center of town.

Tornadoes elsewhere killed one person in Mississippi, and injured several people in Tennessee as a line of thunderstorms rolled across the region. Tornado warnings were posted for Alabama but only minor damage was reported. On Friday evening, one person was killed and about 30 were injured by tornadoes in Illinois.

Berea, a community of about 8,000, appeared to be the hardest hit in Kentucky. About 800 to 1,000 homes were damaged, with about 20 percent of them destroyed, said Kerby. However, only minor injuries were reported by the storm that hit about 6 a.m.

“You’ll have one house perfectly all right, and the one next to it is missing the top half and it’s laying in someone’s yard blocks away,” Kerby said.

Roofs were blown off most of the area’s motels, numerous businesses were wrecked and the campus of Berea College had “more trees down than standing,” the mayor said.

At one gas station, he said, “the gas pumps were just bent in half. The Burger King sign is in some people’s back yard three blocks away.”

“It cut just a narrow swath, but it did a good job on that swath,” Kerby said.

National Guard members were sent in to help clean up and to stop looting that had begun, Kerby said.

Seven tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, injuring seven people. In the tiny town of Cornersville, a twister damaged seven mobile homes, three businesses and the school auditorium.

Wind reaching 110 mph near Cleveland, Tenn., forced organizers to stop Olympic whitewater canoe and kayak qualifying competition on the Ocoee River, and hundreds of spectators were evacuated. Competition resumed about an hour later.

Another tornado ripped through Mississippi’s Carroll County during the morning, crushing a mobile home and killing a teenager who was inside, authorities said.

The stormy weather struck central and southern Illinois on Friday evening.

“We knew there was a storm, and we went outside, and we could see the funnel cloud,” said Anita Wilcott, who was at work in Decatur, Ill., when a twister arrived. “We got down in a ditch. There were probably 10 to 12 of us out in that ditch.”

Decatur officials estimated 100 to 200 homes were damaged.

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