As the tornado roared directly toward their home, 13-year-old John Reyes, his grandmother Emma Mullins, and his small cousin Ryan took refuge under a bed. There was nowhere else to go.

"They were up underneath the bed, and the mattress started lifting up and the boys started to be pulled away," said Mullins's nephew, Dwayne Meche. "My aunt went to reach for them, and she got lifted up, and John said he saw a board go straight through her back."

Mullins, a waitress for more than 30 years at the L&M Cafe in nearby Georgetown, was among the 27 confirmed dead in this small farming community that has been struck twice in the past eight years -- once in 1989 and again Tuesday -- by killer tornadoes. Ryan Mullins, age 5, whose body was flung at least 500 feet, also died. But John Reyes, although badly cut and bruised, managed to survive the afternoon of death and destruction.

The tornado, one of a series that ripped through central Texas on Tuesday afternoon, flattened the Double Creek subdivision where Mullins lived, scraping the modest houses from their foundations, hurling pets and farm animals into the air, ripping the very pavement off streets and leaving residents with the horrifying reminder that the same tragedy can visit the same small community again and again. Only one person, however, died in the May 17, 1989, storm that destroyed half of the town.

Even as the bodies were removed from a temporary morgue at the volunteer fire department today and anxious relatives scanned the "safe lists" at the American Red Cross shelter, authorities offered this ominous fact: Twenty-three other persons here are unaccounted for, which could bring the death toll in this community of about 500 residents as high as 50, one-tenth of the population of Jarrell proper. With nearby farming families, the total population of the unincorporated area, about 40 miles north of Austin, is about 1,000.

"Frequently miracles do happen," said Sherri Deatherage Green, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Public Safety about the ongoing rescue efforts involving sniffer dogs and dozens of workers. "It's possible, but not extremely likely right now."

That dim prospect made Gerald Gower's search for his 11-year-old son, Brian, all the more poignant. "Do you want to see a picture of my little boy?" he asked reporters, producing a photograph of a handsome boy with a wide smile who loved to play baseball and put together model cars. Brian was with his mother, Gower's ex-wife, Bernice Gower, when the storm destroyed their Double Creek home. Both are missing.

"I've got some hope, but the way it looks . . . " Gower, a 47-year-old security guard, said, his voice trailing off. "Twisters just do crazy things to people."

Green said the Jarrell tornado cut a swath a half-mile wide and four or five miles long, pulverizing about 50 homes in the development. The scene looked strangely peaceful today in the muggy sunlight, like green fields swept clean of buildings, with small chunks of debris piled all around. "There really aren't any houses," Green said. "A couple on the perimeter are damaged but still standing. {Rescuers} are just going through the rubble."

After touring the site by helicopter, Gov. George W. Bush (R) seemed shaken by what he had seen. "The devastation was mind-boggling," Bush said. "It's hard to believe you're looking at a patch of Earth where life was literally sucked out of it."

State insurance commissioner Elton Bomer, who accompanied Bush, said the damage in Jarrell alone could reach $20 million. The massive storm may have spawned as many as six tornadoes; two other people died in Travis County as the winds sped south, and five more are still missing in the Williamson County community of Cedar Park, where the roof of a grocery store collapsed on shoppers.

The twister that devastated Jarrell this second time was "a very large tornado, rare for us, but not unique," said meteorologist Al Dreumont of the National Weather Service. He classified it as a F-4 tornado, with winds of 200 mph, traveling south/southwest at 20 mph. On the tornado-power scale, an F-5 is the strongest twister, with winds exceeding 250 mph.

Jarrell lies about 60 miles south of what is known as "Tornado Alley," the region from Waco northward to Dallas and on to Oklahoma and Kansas where springtime tornadoes are most likely to occur. But violent storms in April and May are still a given here. Dreumont said that Tuesday's tornado stayed on the ground a particularly long time, as much as 25 to 30 minutes, although perhaps not in the Double Creek subdivision for all that time. The twister was the state's worst since May 22, 1987, when 30 people died and 162 were injured in the West Texas town of Saragosa.

Although Texas law requires that mobile homes be anchored to withstand tornadoes -- a precaution officials said would have done little good against the force of the Tuesday storm -- there are no requirements that permanent homes contain underground shelters, and basements are relatively rare in Texas.

Dreumont said the weather service issued its first tornado warning for the Jarrell area Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., 35 minutes before the twister struck at 4:05 p.m. "There's nothing else we could have done," he said. "Unfortunately, in a very large tornado, there are not too many places to hide -- it's too large to outrun and judging from the damage, too strong to have survived unless you got away from the path. . . . This one sucked up the asphalt in some of the streets."

John Johnson, principal of Jarrell High School, said the warning sirens at the volunteer fire department were sounded in plenty of time. He said he felt certain the residents tried to protect themselves as best they could, but in the end, they were simply in the worst possible place.

"With what happened to those houses out there, it didn't matter," Johnson said. "I think they had warning, they took shelter the way we've all been told to, and it didn't matter."

Authorities had not released the names of victims by late this afternoon, but confirmed that all the Jerrell deaths were in Double Creek, a collection of working-class houses and some mobile homes in the southwest corner of the community. David Harp, principal of the elementary school, said that "probably as many as nine students in our whole school have been killed." The Jarrell School has about 600 students in grades kindergarten through 12.

For residents who figured that after weathering the 1989 storm they might be spared another twister forever, the latest devastation was mind-numbing.

"I was home until 10 minutes before it hit and I grabbed my grandson and I boogeyed out of there," said Cindy Carroll, whose house at the top of the hill was left damaged but still standing. "I don't know how to explain why we were hit twice. Maybe it's the way the weather currents go through that valley, I don't know. Both were devastating, but this one took so many lives, this one stopped right there at the hill and stayed there."

After the 1989 storm, which seemed to focus on the business section of the town -- largely unscathed this time -- residents rebuilt the small collection of stores and small restaurants. Shocked residents left homeless today said they could not even begin to imagine yet how they would put their lives together.

Jim and Virginia Davidson, however, were simply thankful, despite the loss of everything they had worked hard for. When Jim Davidson returned to what had been his home Tuesday night, he feared he would not find Virginia alive.

"I couldn't believe anyone could live through this," he said. But when he looked up the road, he saw his wife, bloodied, bruised and clinging to her two puppies, running toward him.

"I just grabbed her like I've never grabbed her before in my life," he said.

Virginia Davidson had curled up in the bathtub. When the storm hit, she said, she went sailing through the air in her porcelain boat.

"Everything is gone," she said. "My home is gone. My cattle pen is gone. My entire farm is gone. I've always heard that tornadoes were fast, but this was so slow. I thought it would last forever." Special correspondent Elizabeth Hudson contributed to this report. CAPTION: Residents of development in Jarrell, Tex., study damage to their homes after a tornado packing winds of up to 200 mph hit town Tuesday. The town was also hit in 1989, when one person was killed. CAPTION: A supermarket in Cedar Park, Tex., was destroyed by one of a series of tornadoes that ripped through central Texas Tuesday, killing at least 27 people. (Photo ran in an earlier edition) CAPTION: In Moody, Tex., Bill Slentz looks over damage to his house from a tornado, one in a series of storms that killed nearly 30 people and left more than 20 missing.