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Tornado kills 9 in Kansas

Little left of city; more twisters tear across the region

Steve Hewitt, city administrator in Greensburg, Kan., estimated that the large tornado that hit the area Friday night destroyed 95 percent of the city of 1,400. (Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Emergency crews called off the search for more victims of a tornado that killed nine people in Kansas on Friday and nearly wiped out this town in the southwestern part of the state.

Last night a fresh wave of tornadoes ripped through southwest Kansas, and the National Weather Service said it had received reports "well into the double digits" of twisters touching down in six counties.

Among them were a series of half-mile wide "wedge" tornadoes -- similar to the one that devastated Greensburg , meteorologist Mike Umscheid said.

"We're going to expect quite a lot of damage," he said.

Rescuers had spent the day hurrying through the ruins from Friday's giant tornado, which left little standing in Greensburg beyond the local pub.

The dead from Friday's storm included eight in Kiowa County, where Greensburg is located, and one in nearby Stafford County, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Department.

Kansas authorities said they feared the death toll could rise even before the latest twisters.

City Administrator Steve Hewitt estimated that 95 percent of the town of 1,500 was destroyed and predicted that rescue efforts could take days as survivors could be trapped in basements and under rubble.

The twister was part of a storm front that spawned tornadoes along a line northeast from Greensburg through central Kansas.

At least seven more tornadoes were reported late Friday and yesterday in Illinois, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Nebraska, though damage was minimal. No injuries were reported in any of those states.

Survivors in Greensburg picked over the remnants of their homes and possessions, still dazed by the twister's strength and scope.

Jackie Robertson and her family collected wedding photos, a wallet, and other belongings from the debris that had been her home. Robertson, her husband, and a friend stayed in a cellar Friday night when the storms struck.

"My heart just aches for everyone," she said. "It is so surreal."

The town, previously best known as the home of the world's largest hand-dug well -- 32 feet in diameter, 109 feet deep when it was finished in 1888 -- was a nightmare of splintered homes and smashed vehicles, the air redolent with the smell of sap from trees stripped of bark.

Residents said they heard the tornado warning sirens -- a common feature of towns in "Tornado Alley" -- about 20 minutes before Friday's storm hit.

National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of damage was 1.4 miles wide, estimating that it would be classified an "upper F 4 or an F 5" tornado, the strongest possible.

Jose Peraza said he was driving his oil rig into town when he heard the siren and driving hail started pounding the area. He pulled over and sought shelter with several other people in a convenience-store freezer.

He said the storm ripped the side off the freezer and when he came out he found the twister had thrown his truck -- weighed down by 40,000 pounds of oil -- "like nothing."

"We continue to find folks and this will go on for a good couple days -- the rescue itself," Hewitt said.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County, said her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran. The state sent 40 National Guard soldiers to help.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Dawn Kinsey said FEMA was preparing to help once Kansas officials request assistance.

Scores of injured people were sent to hospitals as far away as Wichita, 110 miles away. More than 70 went to Pratt Regional Medical Center about 30 minutes away, with all but 14 treated and released, said hospital spokeswoman Kim Stivers.