Twisters Rip Through Southern Plains

PICHER, Okla. (May 11) - Crews and search dogs hunted Sunday for survivors or bodies in the piles of debris left after a tornado rumbled through a day earlier and killed at least seven people.

Officials held out hope that they wouldn't find any more bodies in this town, once a bustling mining center of 20,000 that dwindled to about 800 people as families fled lead pollution here.

Residents said the tornado created a surreal scene as it moved through Picher late Saturday afternoon, injuring 150 people, overturning cars, throwing mattresses and twisted metal high into the canopy of trees.

"I swear I could see cars floating," said Herman Hernandez, 68. "And there was a roar, louder and louder."

The same storm system then moved into southwest Missouri, where tornadoes killed at least 14 others. The storms moved eastward; On Sunday, storms in Georgia killed at least one people.

In Seneca, Mo., about 20 miles southeast of Picher near the Oklahoma border, crews on Sunday combed farm fields looking for bodies and survivors, the state emergency management spokeswoman said.

"We are finding more unfortunately," Susie Stonner said, refering to the bodies.

Jane Lant was sorting through the debris of her bridal shop about 10 miles north of Seneca. A body wrapped in blue tarp lay next to the shop. Her husband's feed store and a home across the road were also destroyed.

Lant said they were thankful that the story had closed an hour before the twister hit.

"We would have had people in here at 6 when it hit," she said.

In Picher, some homes were reduced to their foundations, others lost several walls. In one home, the tornado knocked down a bedroom wall, but left clothes hanging neatly in a closet.

A Best Western hotel sign was blown miles before coming to rest against a post. At one home, a basketball goal planted in concrete had its metal support twisted so the rim hung only about 3 feet above ground.

The towering piles of mining waste, or chat, had debris from the flattened homes scattered onto them by the storms. Cars were overturned and dogs roamed freely.

"Trees are toppled over, ripped apart," said Frank Geasland, Ottawa County's emergency manager. "There are cars thrown everywhere. It looks like a bomb went off, pretty much."

Geasland said a government-sponsored buyout of homes in the town left some residences vacant, and this may have prevented a greater loss of life.

The twister was the deadliest in Oklahoma since a May 3, 1999 twister that killed 44 people in the Oklahoma City area.

The National Weather Service estimated that at least eight tornadoes had been spawned in Oklahoma along six storm tracks. Three teams were dispatched to assess damage, meteorologist Steve Amburn said.

Television footage showed some destroyed outbuildings and damaged homes west of McAlester and near Haywood. At a glass plant southwest of McAlester, the storm apparently picked up a trailer and slammed it on top of garbage bins.

On Sunday, storms rumbled across Georgia, killing at least one person in Dublin, about a 121 miles southeast of Atlanta, authorities said. Weather officials had not yet confirmed whether the storms produced any tornadoes.

Georgia Power officials say at least 80,000 residents are without electricity across the state, mostly concentrated in the metro Atlanta area and the Macon area.

At least 14 people were killed after severe storms spawned tornadoes and high winds across sections of southwestern Missouri, state emergency management officials said.

Ten of the dead were killed when a twister struck near Seneca.

The number of injuries across the area was not immediately available. But Keith Stammer, who is acting as spokesman for Newton County emergency operations, said 19 people were hospitalized. He did not know the extent of their injuries.

In storm-weary Arkansas, a tornado collapsed a home and a business, and there were reports of a few people trapped in buildings, said Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson.

Tornadoes killed 13 people in Arkansas on Feb. 5, and another seven were killed in an outbreak May 2. In between was freezing weather, persistent rain and river flooding that damaged residences has slowed farmers in their planting.

Associated Press writers Murray Evans in Picher, Roxana Hegeman in Seneca, Mo., and Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.