JEFFERSON CITY, MO. - A tornado caused heavy damage in Missouri's capital city as severe weather swept across the state overnight, causing at least three deaths and injuring nearly two dozen people as homes and businesses were ripped apart.
The National Weather Service confirmed that the large and destructive tornado moved over Jefferson City shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
"Across the state, Missouri's first responders once again responded quickly and with strong coordination as much of the state dealt with extremely dangerous conditions that left people injured, trapped in homes, and tragically led to the death of three people," Gov. Mike Parson said.
Missouri Public Safety said the three were killed in the Golden City area of Barton County, near Missouri's southwest corner, as the severe weather moved in from Oklahoma, where rescuers struggled to pull people from high water. The tornado hit during a week that has seen several days of tornadoes and torrential rains in parts of the Southern Plains and Midwest.
No deaths were reported in the capital, but Jefferson City Police Lt. David Williams said about 20 people were rescued by emergency personnel.
The weather service reported that a "confirmed large and destructive tornado" was observed over Jefferson City at 11:43 p.m. Wednesday, moving northeast at 40 mph (64 kph). The capital city has a population of about 40,000 and is located about 130 miles (209 kilometers) west of St. Louis.
"It's a chaotic situation right now," Williams said.
Williams spoke from the Cole County Sheriff's office, where debris including insulation, roofing shingles and metal pieces lay on the ground outside the front doors. Authorities were discouraging people from beginning clean-up efforts until power is safely restored. Area hospitals set up command centers in case the need arises.
Missouri Public Safety tweeted that there was a possibility of more tornadoes and flash flooding.
Austin Thomson, 25, was in the laundry room of his complex of two-story apartment buildings to do his wash and noticed the wind started picking up. He saw sheets of rain coming down and a flagpole bend and then slam to the ground. The windows broke and he dove behind the washers and dryers.
After it calmed down, he walked outside to check the damage, and retrieved a stuffed animal for his daughter from his damaged apartment.
"There's basically one building that's basically one story now," he said.
The weather service said it had received 22 reports of tornadoes by late Wednesday; some could be duplicate reporting of the same twister.
One tornado skirted just a few miles north of Joplin, Missouri, on the eighth anniversary of a catastrophic tornado that killed 161 people in the city. The tornado caused some damage in the town of Carl Junction, about 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) north of the Joplin airport, where several injuries were reported.
The severe weather was expected to continue Thursday as the storms head east. Forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center say parts of the Ohio Valley and the Mid-Atlantic could see tornadoes, large hail and strong winds. Forecasters say the area most at risk for bad weather Thursday includes Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Flooding and runaway barges
Storms and torrential rains have ravaged the Midwest, from Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. Authorities urged residents of several small towns in Oklahoma and Kansas to leave their homes as rivers and streams rose.
Two barges broke loose and floated swiftly down the swollen Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, spreading alarm downstream as they threatened to hit a dam. A posting on the official Facebook page of the river town of Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, said the runaway barges posed a dire threat to its 600 residents: "Evacuate Webbers Falls immediately. The barges are loose and has the potential to hit the lock and dam 16. If the dam breaks, it will be catastrophic!! Leave now!!"
Authorities located the barges Thursday morning, stuck on rocks in the swollen river. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol says the barges were still tied together, and crews were working to secure them.
Still, the Interstate 40 bridge and a state highway bridge remain closed over the Arkansas River at Webbers Falls as a precaution, according to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2002, a barge struck the Interstate 40 bridge pier at Webbers Falls, causing part of the bridge to collapse into the Arkansas River. Fourteen people died after their vehicles plunged into the water.
Deaths from this week's storms include a 74-year-old woman found early Wednesday morning in Iowa. Officials there say she was killed by a possible tornado that damaged a farmstead in Adair County. Missouri authorities said heavy rain was a contributing factor in the deaths of two people in a traffic accident Tuesday near Springfield.
A fourth weather-related death may have occurred in Oklahoma, where the Highway Patrol said a woman apparently drowned after driving around a barricade Tuesday near Perkins, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma City. The unidentified woman's body was sent to the state medical examiner's office to confirm the cause of death. Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said she isn't yet listed as what would be the state's first storm-related death.