Tornado obliterates Kansas farming town, nine dead

A tornado wiped out most of a small farming town in southwestern Kansas, killing nine people and injuring at least 63, emergency officials said on Saturday.

The funnel cloud hit Greensburg on Friday evening, smashing buildings, overturning vehicles and knocking out communications towers. Aerial television news footage showed ruins throughout the community of about 1 800 people.

Rescue workers were going door to door, aided by National Guard troops. Some residents said on television that emergency sirens had given them about 20 minutes of warning before the punishing winds slammed into the town.

”There is the possibility of others being found,” said Sharon Watson, a spokesperson for the state emergency management agency, about the number of people killed. ”It’s a significant disaster in terms of an entire town being nearly wiped out. It is certainly a tremendous amount of damage and rubble.”

She had no estimate on how much property damage the storm caused.

The tornado was ”massive,” measuring up to 1,6km wide, said Michael Lacy, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Dodge City, Kansas.

Winds were as strong as 266km/h, he said.

In Washington, White House spokesperson David Almacy said, ”The president’s thoughts and prayers are with the people of Greensburg and all those who have suffered loss and injury.”

An administration official said late on Saturday that US Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator David Paulison offered Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius his agency’s full support.

The official added that President George Bush also spoke to Sebelius and offered any additional assistance her state might need. Bush expressed to her his sadness at the deaths and devastation caused by the tornado, the official said.

Hospital, schools destroyed

Greensburg’s hospital and schools were destroyed. The water tower next to the town’s main tourist attraction — the world’s largest hand-dug well — was knocked down, Lacy said. The town also boasts a 454kg meteor.

Eight people died in Greensburg and one in nearby Stafford County, Watson said.

The American Red Cross was setting up 125 cots in a high school gym in Mullinville, Kansas, about 16km west of Greensburg. There are other shelters in nearby towns, but many residents are staying with family in other parts of the state.

”There’s a lot of shock and concern,” said Ralph Rojas, a Red Cross volunteer. ”There’s a lot of concern for family members they can’t locate.”

Rojas served Greensburg residents a lunch of sloppy Joes and handed out stuffed animals to the youngest survivors and oxygen and medication to the oldest.

The peak US tornado season runs from March through early July.

Tornadoes kill about 70 people on average in the United States each year. The worst cluster came on April 3 and 4 1974, when 307 people were killed by 148 tornadoes in 13 states.

The most violent single tornado appeared on March 18 1925, killing 689 people as it ran from Missouri across southern Illinois into Indiana. – Reuters 2007

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