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Violent tornadoes lash Missouri; 3 dead

Tornadoes ripped through Missouri on Wednesday May 22, leaving behind extensive damage in Jefferson City. Photo taken from Washington Post video.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Twelve hours after violent tornadoes ripped through the state of Missouri, authorities in the Jefferson City area were still sifting through debris and sweeping the most devastated residential areas searching for people to help.

About two dozen people were hurt when the "Wedge Tornado" -- wider in its funnel than it is tall -- ripped through Missouri's capital as part of a storm system that hammered different parts of the state, causing widespread damage in Jefferson City and killing three people more than 170 miles away, in tiny Golden City.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol identified the victims as Kenneth Harris, 86; Opal Harris, 83; and Betty Berg, 56. Berg's husband, 56-year-old Mark Berg, also suffered serious injuries in the storm, Ozarks First reported.

The tornadoes also caused damage in Carl Junction and raged near Joplin, where a different deadly tornado killed 161 people eight years ago.

"We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and that we didn't have more fatalities across the state," Gov. Mike Parson said at an early-morning news conference on Thursday, May 23.

Before midnight, the National Weather Service urged Jefferson City residents to "shelter now!" as the tornado moved at 40 mph through the central Missouri region and shot debris about 13,000 feet into the air.

Melvin Eldridge of Jefferson City woke to leaves hitting his face. The tornado had blown out part of his air conditioner, opening his first-story apartment to gusts of wind.

"It sounded like a train was coming," Eldridge later recalled.

He hid in his bathtub, waiting for the storm to pass.

Nearby, Steve James got his two sons downstairs just in time. As he walked down the steps, his house started shaking. Inside, James and his family hid in the bathroom. Outside the wind blew a door frame onto his stairs. His front windows shattered. The metal railing leading to the front porch broke from the gusts.

"How can 15, 20 seconds cause this?" he said Thursday afternoon while sitting in front of his damaged house.

Jefferson City Police Lt. David Williams said that a three-square-mile area received the brunt of the damage from the storm and that authorities had spent the 12 hours since the tornadoes passed going door to door to ensure residents were safe.

"At this point, it's too early to tell how large the scale of damage will be," Williams said just hours after the tornado struck. "It's a chaotic situation right now. We are trying to identify the people that need our help the most."

He said police had received calls from people saying they were trapped in their homes; by daybreak, those people had been rescued, officials said. Authorities triumphantly announced at a midday news conference that injuries in Jefferson City had been minimal, that there were no fatalities and no reports of missing people.

"It sounds as if the injuries have been few, which is truly amazing considering the extent of the damage," Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin told CNN. Residents seemed to have heeded the warning sirens, Tergin said, which may have prevented mass casualties.

Thousands in the area were without power Thursday morning, authorities said, and police said utilities in damaged homes and businesses would "present a hazard as power is restored." Police warned residents to resist the urge to begin cleanup before authorities had been able to assess the structural integrity of their homes and businesses.

This article was written by Peter Baugh, Timothy Bella and Katie Mettler, reporters for The Washington Post.