Tornadoes Leave At Least 21 Dead

By: CNN
By: CNN

PICHER, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Residents in three Midwestern states spent Mother's Day sifting through the wreckage of their homes, trying to recover from powerful storms that left at least 24 people dead.

Residents examine a home Sunday that was ripped apart by a tornado the day before in Picher, Oklahoma.

The storm system killed at least 20 people in the Midwest and then continued into the South, killing one person in Georgia, officials said.

Sherri Mills was in the small Oklahoma town of Picher trying to find family pictures among wreckage that was a friend's home. Mills said her friend was elsewhere when the tornado struck.

"Thank God she wasn't here," said Mills, standing in front of the piles of brick and wood. "[She] lost everything. This was a two-story big brick home."

Another man in Picher said he was home with his family when the storm hit. He was blown around inside his house, and was lucky to be alive, he said.

"We got down on the floor and huddled up together, and we weren't in there 30 seconds when it hit the house," the man told CNN. "We ended up right there under that door. At least I was under the door. My wife, two granddaughters and my daughter was all there, just bunched up against each other."

President Bush pledged federal support. "Mother's Day is a sad day for those who lost their lives in Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia because of the tornadoes," he told reporters in Waco, Texas.

"We send our prayers for those who lost their lives. The federal government will be moving hard to help," he added.

Later, aboard Air Force One, Bush contacted Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt. And after arriving at the White House, he spoke with Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA boss David Paulison also were in touch with the governors. Bush didn't specify what support the federal government would give.

The nearby town of Kite, with about 200 residents, was "significantly damaged," she said.

Janak said initial reports that the town was "gone," were exaggerated.

Authorities fear there may be additional casualties in Missouri, said Susie Stonner, a spokeswoman with the State Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson City.

"It's dark, and it was over a wide area. Some of the houses have been completely destroyed," she said.

A twister touched down in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma shortly before 6 p.m. and killed six people in Ottawa County, according to emergency officials. And a 20-mile area in Picher was destroyed, said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

Another 150 were injured, and an unknown number of people were missing.

Ooten said the town enlisted the help of firefighters from surrounding areas, who went house-to-house in a 20-block area, sifting through the rubble and searching for survivors.

"It looks like a war zone," she said. "Some homes have fallen in, some homes have lost roofs, and some are now just slabs."

Freelance journalist Mike Priest went to a heavy-hit neighborhood in Picher on Sunday, surveying an area where almost all the houses were were obliterated. Watch Priest film flattened houses »

All the residents had left, abandoning their cars, clothes and even their pets, Priest said.

"As you can see, some people's pets have been left behind, and they are fighting over some food," Priest told CNN as he shot footage of the neighborhood. "Just total devastation.

"Houses wiped all the way down to the foundation. You can see what used to be a house in the driveway. The storm was incredibly, incredibly strong right through here."

By early Sunday, emergency management agencies in the two states reported deaths in the following areas: Six in Ottawa County, Oklahoma; 12 in Newton County, Missouri; one in a small community just east of Carthage in Jasper County, Missouri; and one in an area of Purdy in Barry County, Missouri.


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