HARRISBURG, Ill. — A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes in a small Illinois town Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest and South, killing at least 12 people in three states.
Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the tourist season.
The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.
By midday, townspeople in the community of 9,000 were sorting through piles of debris while the winds still howled around them.
The twister that raked Branson seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, moving from side to side.
As sirens blared, Derrick Washington stepped out of his motel room just long enough to see a greenish-purple sky. Then he heard the twister roar.
"Every time the tornado hit a building, you could see it exploding," he said.
Just six guests were staying at J.R.'s Motor Inn, and all of them escaped injury by taking refuge in bathtubs. Engineers deemed the building a total loss after the second floor, the roof and all windows were destroyed.
At the 530-room downtown Hilton, intense winds sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.
Branson is about 110 miles southeast of Joplin, which was devastated by a monstrous twister last May that killed 161 people. Memories of that disaster motivated people to take cover after the sirens sounded early Wednesday.
Three people also were killed in Missouri, and three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee as storms collapsed homes and downed power lines.
Another strong system is expected Friday. Ryan Jewell, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said it is forecast to take a path similar to Wednesday's and has the potential to inflict even more damage.
Both the Midwest and South, he said, would be "right in the bull's eye."