GLEN ALLEN, Mo. (AP) — A large tornado tore through southeastern Missouri before dawn on Wednesday, killing at least five people and causing widespread destruction as a broad swath of the Midwest and South kept a wary eye out for further storms that could spawn additional twisters and hail.
Wednesday’s severe weather was the third in a series of massive storms over the last two weeks that have spawned dozens of tornadoes, mainly in the South and Midwest, killing at least 63 people. Just last weekend, confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states laid waste to neighborhoods across a broad swath of the country.
The Missouri tornado touched down around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and moved through a rural area of Bollinger County, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of St. Louis, said Sgt. Clark Parrott of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Trees were uprooted and homes turned into piles of splinters. One building was flipped on its side. Drone footage showed emergency crews peering into the wreckage with flashlights.
More than 20 agencies were part of the search for survivors and victims, with the damage so bad that they sometimes were forced to use chainsaws to cut back trees and brush to reach homes, Parrott said.
“It’s just heartbreaking to see it,” Parrott said.
The damage was concentrated around the small rural communities of Glen Allen and Grassy, which are separated by a hunting area, said Bollinger County Sheriff Casey Graham in a Facebook post announcing the five deaths. He didn’t immediately release the victims’ names.
Charles Collier, 61, said he saw the coroner’s van drive by with its lights on in Glen Allen, where he owns a storage facility.
“That was a sad, sad sight — knowing there was bodies in there,” said Collier, who wasn’t entirely relieved when he saw his facility was spared. “I was just numb, thinking about all these other people, what they’re going through.”
Josh Wells said that the tornado tore half of the roof off his Glen Allen 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.
While his sister’s home held up, the area reeked of gas because a propane unit was damaged.
Justin Gibbs, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Paducah, Kentucky, said the tornado remained on the ground for roughly 15 minutes, traveling an estimated 15-20 miles (24-32 kilometers).
Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-2 rating, packing wind speeds of 130 mph (228 kph).
Gibbs noted that tornadoes are especially dangerous when they touch down late at night or early in the morning, as this one did.
“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.”
A phone weather alert awakened Bobby Masters, who said debris was slamming his Glen Allen home as he took shelter in his basement with his family. He recalled hearing a roar as the tornado passed.
“I had never heard a tornado before. They say it sounds like a freight train and that is exactly what it sounds like,” he said, adding: “The good Lord spared us, our family and our house.”
Keith Lincoln, 56, who also was awakened by a phone alert, huddled in a bathtub with his wife and 18-year-old daughter and prayed: “Just save us and the house.” He spent the afternoon patching his roof but was thankful his prayer was mostly answered.
Chris Green, 35, found a small black dog dead in the debris. “I can’t just leave it here,” he said as he and his father buried the animal.
The area is rural, with residents mostly farming, cutting timber or working construction jobs, said Larry Welker, Bollinger County’s public administrator. The entire county’s population only totals around 10,500. The battered communities are tiny, little more than a few scattered homes and businesses.
Gov. Mike Parson said he would join emergency personnel on the ground to assess damage and determine what resources are needed. They planned a news conference in the afternoon.
Missouri’s U.S. Sens. Eric Schmitt and Josh Hawley, meanwhile, said they’re in touch with local leaders and ready to help. Schmitt also warned Missouri residents in a statement to stay alert “as there’s more severe weather on the horizon.”
The storms moving through the Midwest and South on Wednesday threaten some areas still reeling from the deadly bout of bad weather last weekend. The Storm Prediction Center said up to 40 million people in an area that includes major cities including Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee, were at risk from the storms later Wednesday.
Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, canceled Wednesday classes because the storms were expected to move through the area during the morning rush, KFVS-TV reported.
In central Illinois, authorities said five people were hurt and about 300 homes were without power due to a tornado that struck in Fulton County on Tuesday evening. Chris Helle, who directs the county’s Emergency Services Disaster Agency, said one of the people injured was in critical condition.
Helle said the damage was concentrated near the town of Bryant, about 200 mile (322 kilometers) southwest of Chicago. Fire departments and other first responders were still cataloguing the damage there, but Helle said numerous homes had been destroyed. He credited people for listening to advance warnings and taking shelter.
Officials said another tornado touched down Tuesday morning in the western Illinois community of Colona. Local news reports showed wind damage to some businesses there.
Winds of up to 90 mph (145 kph) and baseball-sized hail also caused damage in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.
McFetridge reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writers Margaret Stafford in Liberty, Missouri, Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, and Trisha Ahmed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.