DE SOTO, Mo. – Tornadoes (search) swept across the Midwest (search) and South overnight and Wednesday, killing two people in Illinois and battering a region still trying to recover from deadly twisters that struck over the weekend.
A junior high gymnasium in this community 35 miles southwest of St. Louis was destroyed in Tuesday night's twister but 25 young track athletes and their coaches were spared because they had fled the gym just in time.
"Chairs started flying. Everything started shaking. It was scary," Travis Shores, 14, said as he visited the ruins Wednesday.
Said Grant Gannon, also 14: "I kept hearing the wind, then there was a loud boom like a bomb went off."
At least four tornadoes hit southern Illinois late Tuesday and early Wednesday, killing two people, injuring at least 20 and destroying or damaging scores of homes. In Mermet, the trailer of Mariam Houchins, 65, was wrapped around tree trunks; her body was found in a ravine. Steve Kohn, 53, was killed in nearby Grand Chain.
Brenda Crockett of Mermet had climbed out of her basement after the first tornado struck and was surveying the rubble of her house when she saw a second twister bearing down on her.
"There was nothing for me to do except lie down and grab the grass," said Crockett, who spent Wednesday looking for family photographs and other treasures to save.
There also were tornadoes in Texas, Georgia, northeast Mississippi and Downsville, La., but no serious injuries were reported. High wind and heavy rain also hit parts of Arkansas and Alabama, where officials closed schools and some churches canceled midweek services.
In eastern Tennessee, which has been drenched by rain since Sunday, flooding forced Chattanooga residents to take emergency shelter as the Tennessee River rose toward its highest level in nearly 30 years. The Tennessee Valley Authority said some 300 homes and other structures could be flooded and damages could reach $7 million.
"We've been through this before," said Liz Foster, manager of a complex that emptied 64 downstairs apartments because of the high water. "Can I cry?"
The heavy rain and wind had many in Pierce City, Mo., hit hard by Sunday's tornadoes, fearing damaged historic buildings would simply collapse.
"This we didn't need," Lawrence County Sheriff Doug Seneker said of the latest stormy weather. "With all of the damaged buildings, the wind can easily knock some of them down."
The last people listed as missing in Pierce City (search) turned up safe Wednesday. The death toll from the weekend's storms stood at 40 -- 18 in Missouri, 15 in Tennessee and seven in Kansas. In Franklin, Kan., friends and family buried 87-year-old Josephine Maghe, one of those killed Sunday.
The Insurance Information Institute, a trade association based in New York City, said Wednesday the tornadoes that struck earlier in the week could cost insurers at least $325 million.
Across from the rubble of what had been the Stockton, Mo., post office, 87-year-old T.M. Montgomery looked at the shambles of the auto dealership he has owned for about three decades. Windows were shattered on more than two dozen new Chevrolet and Oldsmobile cars and pickup trucks.
Montgomery estimated his losses at $800,000 to $1 million. When offered good luck by a reporter, he replied: "We're going to need it."
In De Soto, virtually every street was littered with broken trees and snapped utility poles. The storm picked up the Crawford family home on North Second Street and planted it in the middle of the street. No one was hurt.
"As you're driving down Second Street, you now come to the front door of a house," Police Chief Don Kraher said. "But for the grace of God, we could have had many, many injuries."
Residents credited warning sirens that sounded 15 minutes before the tornado arrived. David Tetrault, ambulance district director in St. Francois County, said only one person in the region was hospitalized.
"It's a miracle, isn't it?" Tetrault said.