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Searchers dig through wreckage left by F5 tornado

Monday, May 7, 2007

(Photo)
Members of the media held a news conference Sunday in Greensburg, Kan., where an F5 tornado struck late Friday. At least 10 people were known dead from weekend storms. Eight of them were in the Greensburg area and two others died elsewhere in Kansas — one during the Friday night storms and one in a second round of violent weather late Saturday, state officials said.
(Orlin Wagner ~ Associated Press)
GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Rescue workers Sunday searched for anyone still buried in the heaps of splintered wreckage left after a massive tornado obliterated most of this south-central Kansas town.

Waves of thunderstorms rippled across the Plains states Sunday, drenching rubble that the Friday night tornado scattered across Greensburg and threatening tornadoes elsewhere.

At least 10 people were known dead from weekend storms -- eight in the Greensburg area and two others elsewhere in Kansas -- one Friday night and another in violent weather late Saturday, state officials said.

Amid the destruction, rescue workers and officials held out hope that death toll wouldn't rise and that they can rebuild their town, from replacing the destroyed churches down to the town's fire engines.

"At this point, it's still a search and rescue mission," Kansas state trooper Ronald Knoefel said. "We don't want to give up hope."

Search teams used trained dogs to sniff for bodies and used their hands and heavy equipment to clear away the rubble, but officials did not know how many people might still be missing.

"A lot of people have gone to other places, and it's difficult to track them down," said Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state's adjutant general.

National Guard engineers were assigned to help with the search. "Some of the rubble is just so deep," Bunting said. "That's really what our problem is."

The National Weather Service classified the Friday night tornado as an F5, the highest category on its scale. The weather service said it had wind estimated at 205 mph, and carved a track 1.7 miles wide and 22 miles long. The last tornado that strong killed 36 people in Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.

Tree trunks stood bare in Greensburg, stripped of most of their branches. All the churches were destroyed. Every business on Main Street was demolished. The town's fire engines were crushed. The massive concrete silos of a grain elevator towered over the flattened expanse of what was left of the town.

Greensburg Administrator Steve Hewitt, who lost his home, estimated 95 percent of the town of 1,500 was destroyed.

Greensburg remained off limits to residents Sunday, but officials said they would be allowed to return this morning to recover what they could. Residents were to be bused in and would have to leave by 6 p.m.

On Sunday, the weather service posted tornado warnings during the afternoon for parts of Kansas and Oklahoma and severe thunderstorm warnings were extended across parts of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was bringing in travel trailers to house some of the town's residents, said FEMA regional administrator Dick Hainje. There was no indication when people would be able to move in to the trailers because the area was choked with debris and the town had no clean water.

President Bush declared parts of Kansas a disaster area, freeing up federal money to aid in recovery.

"There's a certain spirit in the Midwest of our country, a pioneer spirit that still exists, and I'm confident this community will be rebuilt," Bush said.

Some residents were less optimistic.

"If I hear that people are going stay and we're going to have a school, then I'll stay," said Greensburg High School shop teacher Peter Kern, who had lived in the town for the last year. "If we don't have a school, I don't have a job."

School superintendent Darin Headrick said classes will be canceled for the rest of the academic year, with graduation being held elsewhere. When school resumes in August, the district, which has about 300 students, will hold classes in other communities.


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