by ANGELA K. BROWN and JAMIE STENGLE
---- — GRANBURY, Texas — Ten tornadoes touched down in several small communities in North Texas overnight, leaving at least six people dead, dozens injured and hundreds homeless. Emergency responders were still searching for missing people yesterday afternoon.
The National Weather Service gave a preliminary estimate of Wednesday night’s violent system, saying a tornado in Granbury had wind speeds between 166 mph and 200 mph. Other tornadoes damaged nearby Cleburne and Millsap.
Granbury, about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth, bore the brunt of the damage, as the exceptionally powerful tornado tore through two neighborhoods around 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Resident Elizabeth Tovar said fist-sized hail heralded the tornado’s arrival and prompted her and her family to hide in their bathroom.
“We were all, like, hugging in the bathtub and that’s when it started happening. I heard glass shattering and I knew my house was going,” Tovar said, shaking her head. “We looked up and ... the whole ceiling was gone.”
The weather service’s preliminary storm estimate was an EF-4, based on the Fujita tornado damage scale. An EF-5 is the most severe.
Those who saw the destruction in the city’s Rancho Brazos subdivision, which has a significant number of Habitat for Humanity homes, described it as unrecognizable.
Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry said Thursday he couldn’t tell one street from another — some homes were ripped from foundations, others reduced to rubble. Half of one home was torn away while the other half was still standing, glasses and vases intact on shelves. Trees and debris were scattered across yards, and fences were flattened.
Ruby Derrick, a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, said the organization has built nearly 70 homes in Hood County, with the majority of those in Rancho Brazos.
Authorities said about 110 homes were either destroyed or damaged in the subdivision; about 40 of the damaged homes were built by Habitat. They said other areas in the county had not yet been assessed.
Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds described the overnight hunt for bodies in Granbury.
“Some were found in houses. Some were found around houses,” Deeds said. “There was a report that two of these people that they found were not even near their homes. So we’re going to have to search the area out there.”
Seven people remain unaccounted and authorities hope they are with family or friends, Deeds said at a Thursday morning news conference. Emergency responders were working to identify the six adult bodies that had been found, he said.
He said 37 injured people were treated at hospitals.
Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the weather service’s severe storm lab in Norman, Okla., said May 15 is the latest into the month that the U.S. has had to wait for its first significant tornadoes of the year.
Brooks said he would expect 2013 to be one of the least lethal tornado years since the agency started keeping records in 1954.
Utilities said about 20,000 homes and businesses in the region were without power early Thursday.
Another tornado cut a mile-wide path through Cleburne on Wednesday, storm spotters told the National Weather Service. The weather service said Wednesday that it was estimated as an EF-3, which has winds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said Thursday morning that no one was killed or seriously hurt in the courthouse city of about 30,000 that’s some 25 miles southeast of Granbury. Nine people suffered minor injuries, and upward of 150 homes were damaged and another 50 were destroyed.
He described the storm as “bizarre” because severe winds kept shifting in different directions.
Cleburne resident Derrek Grisham was going through his mother’s damaged home Thursday, salvaging items before the home is likely torn down.
Grisham, 26, said after the storm passed through, he ran to his mother’s nearby home to check on her and his 10-year-old son, who was staying with her.
“I had to kick in the front door to get them out,” he said, explaining the two had taken shelter in a bathtub.
The roof of the home was torn away and he said her belongings were a jumbled mass, but that Catholic crucifixes stayed in place on the living room wall.
Another tornado hit the small town of Millsap, about 40 miles west of Fort Worth. Parker County Judge Mark Kelley said roof damage was reported to several houses and a barn was destroyed, but no injuries were reported.
Stengle reported from Cleburne and Granbury, Texas. Associated Press writers Diana Heidgerd and Terry Wallace in Dallas; AP videographer John Mone in Granbury, Texas; and freelance photographer Mike Fuentes contributed to this report.