Huge tornadoes wreak havoc in US

Massive twister hits Kansas killing nine, more storms hit seven states yesterday, Bush declares Kansas a disaster area.

A WAVE of tornadoes tore across central United States yesterday, a day after a massive twister obliterated a small Kansas town and killed nine people.

Two years after the Hurricane Katrina debacle where the administration was criticised for reacting too slowly, President George W. Bush moved quickly to declare parts of Kansas a disaster area, freeing up federal money to aid in recovery.

Fresh storms were reported across a huge swathe of land touching seven states from northern Texas to Dakota – known as America’s “Tornado Alley”.

Forecasters scrambled to issue warnings even as the National Weather Service said it had received reports of more than 75 tornado touchdowns on Saturday.

One of them struck Sweetwater, Oklahoma, causing major damage to a high school and other buildings. “The tornado came through and just dead-centre punched Sweetwater,” Roger Mills County Sheriff Joe Hay was quoted as saying by CNN. He said there was extensive damage but just one minor injury in the town.

A videoclip of the high school in Sweetwater showed a collapsed wall of the gymnasium. The storm continued to grind north through northwestern Oklahoma towards Kansas for more than 45 minutes.

The onset of more tornadoes forced rescuers to abandon search efforts in south-western Kansas where crews had spent the day going through the wreckage.

High winds, heavy rain and a large hail storm on Friday night left little standing in Greensburg, Kansas, beyond the local pub and courthouse. “It even sucked the door off our storm shelter,” Greensburg resident Kevin Hillhouse told Wichita television KAKE.

Television images showed the prairie town of 1,600 residents virtually flattened, with roofs shredded, branches sheared off trees and school buildings wrecked.

Churches and every business along the town’s main street were demolished leaving remains of twisted steel and splintered wood. The town was also littered with crumpled vehicles tossed into the melee by winds as strong as 265kmh.

Water, electric and gas utilities were all shut off. The storm had also wiped out both landline and cellular phone services, making communication impossible.

Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts, who toured the area on ground and from the air with other lawmakers, said that the images of Greensburg were similar to the aftermath of atomic bombs in Japan during World War II.

“This town has been wiped off the face of the earth,” he said.“It just looks like ground zero.”

Greensburg residents said that warning sirens went off about 20 minutes before the tornado hit, giving most a chance to get into storm cellars, keeping the death toll low.

President Bush, who was briefed on the disaster by Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Roberts, ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. “Our hearts are heavy for the loss of life in Greensburg, Kansas,” he said yesterday.

“It’s going to take a long time for the community to recover, and so we’ll help in any way we can.”

White House spokesman Tony Snow said that assistance could include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans, and help for individuals and business owners to recover from the disaster.

The Bush administration’s immediate response to the tragedy follows continued criticism over its slow response to Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

“We’re not going to let a disaster happen here like what happened with Katrina,” Republican Todd Tiahrt of Kansas told reporters.

“We’re going to help people first and then help this city rebuild.”

TOWN OBLITERATED

“This town has been wiped off the face of the earth. This is just as bad as it gets.”
SENATOR PAT ROBERTS, who toured the area on ground and from the air with other Kansas lawmakers

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