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Resort city of Branson takes a direct hit from tornado

By Phil Gast, CNN
updated 6:41 PM EST, Wed February 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • EF2 tornado strikes Branson, Missouri, overnight; it was on ground for 20 miles
  • Damage is reported on commercial strip of the resort
  • Thirty-three injuries have been reported, but no deaths
  • Town vows to rebuild, stay open for business

(CNN) -- Officials in the resort city of Branson, Missouri, were relieved an EF2 tornado, which damaged some of its marquee musical theaters, struck before the prime tourist season began.

They said Wednesday the town was still open for business, although tourists might have to change some of their entertainment plans.

"We are getting through it," Mayor Raeanne Presley said of the storm that moved through early Wednesday.

The tornado had winds of 120 to 130 mph, was 400 yards wide and was on the ground for about 20 miles, according to a preliminary report from the National Weather Service.

The storm smashed at least seven miles of the city's commercial strip. Although tourists were in town, the numbers would likely have been much higher in about two weeks, when entertainment moves into full gear through Christmas, officials said.

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Thirty-three injuries were reported; most were minor or moderate. One person was listed as critical, according to City Administrator Dean Kruithof.

Gov. Jay Nixon said damage was in at least in the tens of millions, perhaps higher. Crews were still assessing the extent of the losses.

"We are confident that Branson will be back bigger and better than ever," Nixon told reporters.

"I woke up this morning and looked outside and saw houses were destroyed," said resident Steven Scharmanzer. "I've never seen anything like this in the 20 years I've lived here."

Presley told CNN she couldn't recall a storm that hit so many structures.

Several venues were more fortunate. Silver Dollar City theme park, for example, appeared to be unaffected.

Nestled in the Ozarks region, about 40 miles south of Springfield, Branson has been a musical magnet for decades. It really took off in the mid-1980s, and its many theaters have showcased stars such as Andy Williams and Tony Orlando. The offerings range from country to comedy, classical to kitsch.

Kruithof said about five or six of the city's roughly 40 theaters were damaged. The Branson Variety Theater was heavily damaged, he told CNN.

"One of the big issues is cleaning up and getting rid of the debris," he said. "(However), many, many more of our theaters had minor, or no damage at all."

The city's convention center and an attached Hilton were damaged, as was a portion of Branson Landing, a large shopping and entertainment complex.

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"While we do have significant damage, this is not to the extent to what you saw in Joplin," Kruithof said. "Some properties will be difficult to repair."

The May 22, 2011, EF5 tornado in Joplin, killed 161 people and injured more than 1,000. Joplin is about 110 miles west of Branson.

"We sent crews to Joplin the day that happened," Kruithof said Wednesday. "I have already received e-mails from Joplin to show they are ready to help us."

Damage across Branson included one neighborhood and familiar tourist spots.

A World War II-era biplane in front of a miniature golf course was knocked from its perch. A P-51 Mustang airplane in front of a veterans museum was heavily damaged.

Visitors coming to the town this weekend should be aware of the recovery, officials said.

"Many people who have plans ... will probably need to check with their lodging or shows they had tickets for," Kruithof said.

Many businesses in the southwest Missouri town have disaster preparedness plans.

Entrepreneurs are eager to rebuild.

"We have so many people who want crews in here to clean up, who want to start rebuilding," Kruithof said. "It will be a few weeks to get to some sense of normalcy. Some areas it will take longer."

Resident Donna Lowe told CNN she was asleep in her trailer when the storm arrived.

"When the wind started blowing, I started praying," she told Wolf Blitzer. The storm threw Lowe from her bed.

CNN meteorologist Sean Morris contributed to this report.

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