GREENSBURG, Kan. – The beeping of battery-operated fire alarms buried beneath mounds of debris punctured the silence that fell over this community in the U.S. state of Kansas after hundreds of rescue workers pulled out of town.
An overnight storm that brought a new wave of tornadoes to the Plains caused emergency crews to suspend the search for more victims of a tornado that killed at least eight people and devastated this southwest Kansas farming town a day earlier.
The National Weather Service said it had received reports "well into the double digits" of twisters touching down in six southwest Kansas counties. Numerous tornadoes were reported from South Dakota south into Oklahoma as forecasters scrambled to keep issuing warnings.
U.S. President George W. Bush declared parts of Kansas a disaster area, freeing up federal money to aid in recovery.
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"We need support," Greensburg Administrator Steve Hewitt said. "We want everybody to know this is a huge catastrophe."
At least eight people have died in the Greensburg area. Friday's weather was blamed for at least nine deaths in the region, a number authorities feared could rise even before the latest twisters. All its residents have been evacuated.
Among the few structures that survived was the Bar H Tavern. It was briefly converted into a morgue. Command operations for rescue efforts were moved into the town's courthouse, which was damaged but also still standing.
All the churches have been destroyed. Every business along the town's main street has been demolished — for most, all that remains are steel girders, tattered insulation, splintered wood. The town's fire engines were crushed. Other crumpled vehicles were tossed in the melee.
The town's claim to fame is as home to the world's biggest hand dug well. The well's condition is unknown because it is buried under a mountain of debris; the gift store has disappeared.
For decades, meteorite hunters from throughout the world have been drawn here to hunt for space rocks in the rich soil nearby. The town's extensive meteorite collection, including a 1,000-pound pallasite meteorite, is a casualty of the storm.
"It is very scary right now," said Hewitt.
Hewitt estimated 95 percent of the town of 1,500 was destroyed and predicted rescue efforts could take days as survivors could be trapped in basements and under rubble.
Hewitt, who lost his home in the storm, was somber as he told reporters he was concerned what will happen to his community once all the volunteers and searchers go home.
"This is one of the most devastating tornadoes we have had in Kansas," U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran said.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius planned to tour the storm-damaged area Sunday.
At the shelter in neighboring Haviland, resident Cheryll Behm was skeptical of Greensburg's ability to recover. Her own storm-damaged house is probably repairable, but she said there is no town left. She is a nurse's aide who worked at the local hospital.
"I am concerned Greensburg never will be built," she said. "There is no place to go back to work to. All of Main Street is gone."
Scores of injured people were sent to hospitals as far away as Wichita, 110 miles away. More than 70 went to Pratt Regional Medical Center about 30 minutes away, with all but 14 treated and released, said hospital spokeswoman Kim Stivers.
Rescuers pulled about 30 people from the basement of a partially collapsed hospital early Saturday, but most of them had minor injuries, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Department.
The twister was part of a storm front that spawned tornadoes along a line stretching northeast from Greensburg through central Kansas. At least seven more tornadoes were reported late Friday and Saturday in Illinois, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Nebraska, though damage was minimal, officials said.
In Oklahoma, a tornado tore through the small town of Sweetwater, causing at least one injury and damaging the town's high school and other structures, authorities said.
Television footage showed a large twister hitting the Erick-Sweetwater High School and storm spotters reported damage to nearby residences in the far western Oklahoma town of about 100 that straddles the Beckham-Roger Mills county line.
No injuries were reported in any of those states.
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