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Tornadoes Kill 39, Devastate Eight States in Midwestern U.S.

By Jodi Wilgoren

The New York Times -- Pierce City, MISSOURI

The relentless barrage of some 80 tornadoes that barreled through the United States’ belly on Sunday night did not only kill 39 people, smash hundreds of buildings, and knock out water and power for thousands in eight states.

It also snatched a wood-frame house, with a family of four inside, off its foundation in Cherokee County, Kan., and dumped it in a pasture a quarter-mile away, leaving Julie Green, 50, dead in the rubble. It toppled an emergency tower in Jackson, Tenn., and damaged the concrete fountain there that memorialized the seven victims of a 1999 twister. It ripped the roof off Wilson’s Creek Baptist Church near Battlefield, Mo., as 35 parishioners huddled in the basement praying and singing, “I've got peace like a river.”

“Devastation” was the first word on many lips as public officials declared states of emergency after what experts said were the worst tornadoes in decades.

“It’s a war zone, it’s a big fat war zone,” said Michelle Bacarisse, 42.

In Pierce City, a town of 1,385 that had been on the brink of revival, the storm marched through the historic main street like a horrific parade, knocking out windows and walls, collapsing cars and ceilings, and leaving the once picturesque downtown looking like one big demolition site.

The storms pounded the country’s midsection for hours, leaving Louisville without lights for the Monday morning rush, flooding parts of Iowa where 2.83 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, and dropping baseball-size hail in parts of Nebraska and South Dakota, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

State officials said the tornadoes took 18 lives in Missouri, 14 in Tennessee and seven in Kansas; no one died in Arkansas, though a woman from Antioch, 50 miles north of Little Rock, was in critical condition after emergency surgery for a head injury.

Eleven of Tennessee’s deaths were in Madison County, which includes Jackson, a city of 60,000 that is the largest between Memphis and Nashville. The rest of the deaths were sprinkled across three counties in Kansas and eight in Missouri.