SENECA, Mo. – Stunned survivors picked through the little that was left of their communities Sunday after tornadoes tore across the Plains and South, killing at least 22 people in three states and leaving behind a trail of destruction and stories of loss.
At least 15 people died in southwestern Missouri. In the fading mining town of Picher, Okla., at least six people were killed, and at least one person died in storms in Georgia.
Susan Roberts, 61, stared at the smashed remains of her 1985 Cadillac sitting on her living room floor – the only thing left of her Seneca home. A woman who had apparently sought shelter in the car died there, she said.
“That is what is tearing me up,” Roberts said. She had warned the woman – who stopped to change a tire as Roberts and her 13-year-old grandson drove away from the rental house – to escape. The tornado hit just minutes later.
The same storm system earlier hit Oklahoma, where at least six people died and 150 people were injured in Picher.
“I swear I could see cars floating,” said Herman Hernandez, 68. “And there was a roar, louder and louder.”
Ed Keheley was headed to town to help out Saturday night when he heard a woman screaming. He looked over to see her hand reaching out of debris.
“She was sitting in the bathtub, she had curlers in her hair and she wanted out of there,” said Keheley, who along with several others pulled her out.
The area is part of a Superfund site, and residents have been asked to take part in state and federal buyouts in recent years.
“From what I’ve been able to determine, that wouldn’t have any bearing on whether a disaster declaration would come forth,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Earl Armstrong.
One storm victim’s child was initially reported dead, but state emergency management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten later said the infant was actually alive at a Tulsa hospital.
As the system moved east on Sunday, one of at least six tornadoes in Georgia killed a person in Dublin, about 120 miles southeast of Atlanta, the National Weather Service said.
The town of Kite was destroyed by the storm, said Caroline Pope, a spokeswoman for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department. Close to 1,000 people live in the community, she said.
“From what they’re telling me, it’s gone,” she said from the dispatch center in the jail, which was operating on a generator because the power was out.
Storms later Sunday in North Carolina destroyed several mobile homes, and six people were slightly injured, said Patty McQuillan of the state police. And in South Carolina, a possible tornado damaged several homes, but no injuries were reported, said Charleston County spokeswoman Jennie Davis.
President Bush has talked with governors to express his condolences for the lives lost and to discuss needs for recovery, according to the White House.
“The federal government will be moving hard to help,” Bush said.
In Missouri, the tornado hit the rural area about eight miles north of Seneca and continued east.
Jane Lant climbed over splintered wood to go through the mud-caked remains of her bridal shop.
“I just feel so awful, going through this rubble when they are out looking for bodies,” she said as search dogs wandered in the field behind her. An unidentified body lay under a blue tarp nearby.
Among the dead were five family members of her neighbor who had been going to a wedding when the tornado caught their vehicle in front of her store, she said.
Next door, her husband’s feed store also lay in shambles. But one bright moment came Sunday when rescuers heard chirping from the mound and found a half-dozen chicks. They had rescued about 100 the night before.
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