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Tornadoes rip through Texas // Central Texas towns are devastated; at least 16 die

Violent storms ripped through four central Texas counties from Waco to Austin on Tuesday, killing at least 16 people and injuring scores, leveling a subdivision and tossing cars.

The hardest hit seemed to be Jarrell, a small town 40 miles north of Austin, where a tornado killed 14 people and destroyed all 20 homes in the Double Creeks Estate.

"It's not there anymore," said sheriff's Deputy R. B. Raby. "I don't know of anything anyone can do. It's just a flat, vacant field."

Soldiers from Fort Hood near Killeen were reported to be searching through the wreckage in Jarrell for survivors or additional victims. Local radio stations reported that more than 300 homes were destroyed.

State authorities closed all highways and roads into Jarrell to speed rescue operations. Interstate 35, the main north-south freeway in Central Texas, was closed around Jarrell.

Bits of clothing hung from barbed-wire fences and a semitrailer truck was overturned in a field. Hearses trickled in Tuesday evening as rescue workers began retrieving bodies. Three of the town's residents were hospitalized in critical condition.

Motorists marooned under an overpass on Interstate 35 told a local radio station they saw the tornado that struck Jarrell split into three funnel clouds before it hit the town.

"It covered the entire sky to the north and sounded like the loudest thing you ever thought you'd hear," one caller said.

In Austin, one person was killed when a tornado destroyed two homes around Lake Travis, and a woman drowned in a creek during a storm, city spokesman Carlos Cordova said.

The storm struck Austin at rush hour and downed power lines. Traffic was snarled throughout the city by broken street lights, and at least 30,000 people were without power as darkness fell.

The storms began in Bell and McLennan counties, about 60 miles north of Jarrell, about 3:45 p.m. and moved into Williamson County just north of Austin.

"It was unbelievable," said Thomas Soliz, a Williamson County resident. "You just look up and there it is."

Elsewhere in Williamson County, part of a grocery store's roof was blown off, causing the building to collapse. At least eight people were hurt and one was missing in the rubble, said county spokesman John Sneed.

A fast-food restaurant and a video store nearby also sustained heavy damage.

Outside Wendy's restaurant, people watched the tornado in the parking lot "until the funnel started coming through the sky _ then everyone panicked," said manager Ray Westphal.

"It looked about two inches tall at first. Then it started taking up the entire horizon. As it got closer, building tops were flying around," he said. "It was picking cars right up into the air, flinging them everywhere."

In Bell County, a tornado destroyed a marina and at least five boats. Several houses also were reported destroyed.

Weather forecasters said winds moving ahead of the storm reached 70 mph.

Jarrell, a town of less than 1,000 people, was largely destroyed by a tornado in 1989 that killed one and injured 28. That storm also severely damaged or destroyed 35 homes and 12 mobile homes.

"This is worse," said Janine Brock, a lifelong resident. "It's going to be awful. They're going to have to bury so many people."

_ Information from New York Times was used in this report.