SENECA, Missouri – Stunned survivors continued to pick through the little that was left of their communities after tornadoes tore across the Plains and South over the weekend, killing at least 24 people in four states and leaving behind a trail of destruction and stories of loss.
At least 15 people died in southwestern Missouri. In the fading mining town of Picher, Okla., at least six people were killed, and at least two died in storms in Georgia.
Susan Roberts, 61, stared at the smashed remains of her classic 1985 Cadillac sitting on her living room floor — the only thing left of her Seneca home. A woman who had apparently sought shelter in the car died there, she said.
"That is what is tearing me up," Roberts said. She had warned the woman — who stopped to change a tire as Roberts and her 13-year-old grandson drove away from the rental house — to escape. The tornado hit just minutes later.
"I'm from Kansas. I grew up watching storms," she said as she walked through the debris. "If I didn't have my grandson with me, I probably wouldn't have left."
The same storm system earlier hit Oklahoma, where at least six people died and 150 people were injured in Picher.
The town, once a bustling mining center of 20,000 that dwindled to about 800 people as families fled lead pollution there, was a surreal scene of overturned cars, smashed homes and mattresses, and twisted metal high stuck in the canopy of trees.
"I swear I could see cars floating," said Herman Hernandez, 68. "And there was a roar, louder and louder."
The Environmental Protection Agency said it would check for high lead levels in Picher after the tornado blew through the heavily polluted former mining town where lead-filled waste is piled into giant mounds.
Miles Tolbert, Oklahoma secretary of the environment, said he did not believe there was any immediate hazard to the 800 residents. But he said more testing was needed.
All together, at least 24 people died in Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama after the severe storms erupted Saturday over the Southern Plains and swept east.
About 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service, and the season isn't over yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.
This could also prove to be the busiest tornado season on record in the United States, though the final figure on the number of twisters is not yet in.
Ed Keheley was headed to town to help out Saturday night when he heard a woman screaming. He looked over to see her hand reaching out of debris.
"She was sitting in the bathtub, she had curlers in her hair and she wanted out of there," said Keheley, who along with several others pulled her out.
The area is part of a Superfund site, and residents have been asked to take part in state and federal buyouts in recent years.
"From what I've been able to determine, that wouldn't have any bearing on whether a disaster declaration would come forth," said Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Earl Armstrong.
One storm victim's child was initially reported dead, but state emergency management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten later said the infant was actually alive at a Tulsa hospital.
As the system moved east on Sunday, one of at least six tornadoes in Georgia killed a person in Dublin, about 120 miles southeast of Atlanta, the National Weather Service said. Another person was also killed in Georgia.
The small town of Kite was destroyed by the storm, said Caroline Pope, a spokeswoman for the Johnson County Sheriff's Department. Close to 1,000 people live in the community, she said.
"From what they're telling me, it's gone," she said from the dispatch center in the jail, which was operating on a generator because the power was out.
Storms later Sunday in North Carolina destroyed several mobile homes, and six people were slightly injured, said Patty McQuillan of the state police. And in South Carolina, a possible tornado damaged several homes, but no injuries were reported, said Charleston County spokeswoman Jennie Davis.
President Bush has talked with governors to express his condolences for the lives lost and to discuss needs for recovery, according to the White House.
"The federal government will be moving hard to help," Bush said.
In Missouri, the tornado hit the rural area about eight miles north of Seneca and continued east.
Jane Lant climbed over splintered wood to go through the mud-caked remains of her bridal shop.
"I just feel so awful, going through this rubble when they are out looking for bodies," she said as she motioned to the search dogs wandering the field behind her. An unidentified body lay under a blue tarp nearby.
Among the dead were five family members of her neighbor who had been going to a wedding when the tornado caught their vehicle in front of her store, she said.
Next door, her husband's feed store also lay in shambles. But one bright moment came Sunday when rescuers heard chirping from the mound and found a half-dozen chicks. They had rescued about 100 the night before.
Susie Stonner, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Agency, said it was unclear how many homes had been damaged. But she said officials in Newton County, which includes Seneca, had initial estimates of 50 homes damaged or destroyed there.
In storm-weary Arkansas, a tornado caused significant damage in Stuttgart, but no one was seriously injured, said Weather Service meteorologist Joe Goudsward.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt warned people to say out of vehicles when a tornado is nearby.
Weather experts say motorists and their passengers should find a sturdy shelter or lie flat in a ditch or other low spot, covering their heads with arms, coats or blankets if the tornado is moving in their direction. Overpasses and bridges should also be avoided — the overpass can create a wind-tunnel effect, and bridges can collapse.
Tornadoes killed 13 people in Arkansas on Feb. 5, and another seven were killed in an outbreak May 2. In between was freezing weather, persistent rain and river flooding that damaged homes and has slowed farmers in their planting.
The death toll from tornadoes this year is the highest since 130 people were killed in 1998, according to the weather service. The highest number of tornado-related deaths came in 1953, when 519 people died.
To date this year, 858 tornadoes have been reported in the U.S., although that number probably includes numerous duplicate sightings of the same twister.
Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory said the highest number of tornadoes ever recorded through May 11 of any year was in 1999, when 676 tornadoes were counted. Brooks said he expects the number of confirmed tornadoes through mid-May of this year to end up in the 650-to-700 range.