By Bruce Olson
HARRISBURG, Illinois (Reuters) - Powerful storms spawned tornadoes that tore through the U.S. Midwest on Wednesday, killing nine people, including six in Illinois who were crushed when a house was lifted up and fell on them, authorities said.
Three people in Missouri were also killed by the storm that struck under cover of darkness. A tornado temporarily closed the famous entertainment strip in Branson, Missouri, where country music and other performers draw thousands of people a day to shows.
Two men and four women died when a pre-dawn tornado struck Harrisburg, Mayor Eric Gregg said, describing the storm damage as "horrific."
"There are hundreds of homes damaged, millions of dollars in damage. The hospital is severely damaged. There's a mall with 10 stores that was destroyed," he said.
In Harrisburg, a town of nearly 10,000, a house was lifted up by a powerful twister and fell on top of homes in a housing subdivision adjacent to a wrecked shopping strip.
"It's a house on top of a house," said Mike Hancock, 29, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. Hancock and some others armed themselves with tools and attempted a rescue where the six people died.
"We crawled in there as much as we could. Then there wasn't enough stability, the whole foundation was shaking. We had to get out of there," he said.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center rated the Harrisburg tornado an EF-4, or one notch below the strongest tornadoes, meaning it packed winds of up to 200 miles per hour. The EF-4 rating of the Harrisburg twister put it on a par with the devastating tornado that killed 64 people in Tuscaloosa, Alabama last April, and one notch below the massive EF-5 Joplin storm that flattened whole sections of the Missouri town.
The violent weather prompted reports of as many as 18 tornadoes across six states including Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, according to the National Weather Service.
There were tornado watches issued for parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Ohio.
The storms raised fears that 2012 will be another bad year for tornadoes after 550 people died from tornadoes last year, the deadliest year in nearly a century, according to the Weather Service. The highest death tolls were from an April outbreak in Alabama and Mississippi that claimed 364 lives, and a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22 that killed 161 people.
Twisters caused $28.7 billion in damage last year, according to the U.S. National Climatic Data Center.
In Harrisburg, a quarter-mile of the normally busy shopping strip along Highway 45 was a mass of splintered wood, signage and debris from collapsed stores.
A Forest Service headquarters serving the nearby Shawnee National Forest and a Walmart were smashed, a wall was ripped away from the hospital, and debris littered the area. A truck trailer and cars were upended.
A suspected tornado killed a person in a mobile home park in rural Buffalo, Missouri, and another 13 were injured by a suspected twister, said Lamont Swanson, coroner for Dallas County.
"There was very extensive damage in that trailer park," Swanson said. "I saw one residence completely destroyed."
A man in Stoddard County in southeast Missouri was killed when his mobile home was destroyed. His wife was severely injured.
"It looks like it just exploded," Dale Moreland of the county's emergency management service said of their home.
A 70-year-old man died in Cassville, Missouri when he was thrown from his mobile home by high winds, Barr County Sheriff Mick Epperly said in a news release.
The governors of Illinois, Missouri and Kansas declared emergencies.
There had been two tornado-related deaths in 2012 before Tuesday, both in Alabama on January 23.
At least eight people were injured in Kentucky on Wednesday, one critically, said state emergency management spokesman Buddy Rogers.
"We're getting hammered," Rogers said. "This is a pretty widespread weather event."
Rogers said at least five homes caught fire, the roof of an elementary school gymnasium was blown off in Muhlenberg County but no students were injured.
Several homes were destroyed and others damaged in and around Newburgh, Indiana, emergency officials said, though there were no deaths or injuries reported.
The suspected tornado was a half-mile wide on the ground, based on the damage, said Madison Seib, a public information officer in Warrick County, Indiana. Warning sirens alerted residents to take cover, she said.
The tornado in Branson caused mostly minor injuries to about 30 people, damaged three theaters, four or five hotels and numerous stores that will have to be closed for a while, said Ross Summers, president of the local chamber of commerce.
"Some businesses will take some time to reopen, no question about that," Summers said.
The storm struck early Wednesday, after entertainment shows had shut down and about two weeks before the busy tourist season, city officials said.
"We are still in shock," said Rose Atchley in the city administrator's office. "The strip is totally shut off. There is lots of debris here and there. We are struggling along."
Kansas officials said a suspected tornado inflicted heavy damage to Harveyville near the state capital of Topeka, critically injuring three people. Eight others suffered minor injuries.
(Reporting by David Bailey, James Kelleher, Kevin Murphy, Bruce Olson and Carey Gillam; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Greg McCune)