Debris is scattered around the Legends Theater Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Branson, Mo., after an apparent tornado left a trail of destruction in the tourist hub. (Valerie Mosley/AP)

In Harrisburg, a pre-dawn tornado (Wednesday) claimed at least 6 lives according to the Chicago Sun Times. The Chicago Tribune writes: “television images from the town of 10,000 showed collapsed businesses and overturned trucks”. A Walmart was “smashed” the Tribune said. ABC News reports up to 300 homes and 25 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

The National Weather Service has given the Harrisburg twister a preliminary rating of EF-4 (out of 5), with peak winds estimated at 170 mph.(Only 1.3% of February tornadoes on record since 1950 have reached EF-4 or higher. These twisters have caused 47.4% of February tornado fatalities. Source: USTornadoes)

The Branson tornado ripped, rated EF-2 intensity (preliminary), through the business district of this popular tourist destination early Wednesday (just before 1 a.m.), damaging hotel roofs and theater buildings. It also led to 30 minor injuries.

Images from Branson: Aerial damage| Damage to Hilton Hotel | Damage to Branson Landing

“There’s major, major destruction. There has to be millions dollars of damage all down the strip,” John Moore, owner of the damaged Cakes-n-Creams ‘50s Diner told the Associated Press

Branson was last hit by a tornado in December 2010.

Emergency responders work to clear debris in a neighborhood in Harrisburg, Ill., after an early morning tornado Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (Stephen Lance Dennee/AP)

In the wake of the devastating storms, Missouri governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency. Three tornado-related deaths have been reported in the state.

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center logged 15 tornado reports Tuesday and 4 so far today from the outbreak which also impacted northern Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and western Kentucky. reports the tornado which touched down in Nebraska was the first to occur in February on record in that state. It noted:

Tornado records began in 1950, so one could have struck before then. It’s also possible that a February tornado has struck since 1950, but if it hit a remote part of the state, it could have easily gone unrecorded.

View Photo Gallery: Powerful storms sweep Midwest, damaging Branson theater district.

An image of the Nebraska tornado posted to Twitter shows patchy snow on the ground where it touched down, a rarity.

Video: First February Nebraska tornado on record

In Kansas, a tornado tore across the town of Harveyville (20 miles SW of Topeka) at 9:02 p.m. local time Tuesday night, destroying 40-60% of that town’s structures. The twister, which injured 11 people (the town’s population is 230 residents), was rated at intensity EF-2.

The deadly storms have now advanced into the Tennessee Valley where a large tornado watch is in effect for most of Kentucky and Tennessee through 9 p.m. eastern time.

So far today, several homes have been damaged or destroyed in Kentucky according to AccuWeather reports.

An additional tornado watch was posted for the eastern two thirds of Ohio and western half of West Virginia (also touching northern Kentucky and extreme southwest Virginia) through 9 p.m.

The 2012 severe weather season has gotten off to a very fast start, with more tornadoes to date than the historic 2011 season, one of the worst on record.


Will 2012 produce large numbers of tornadoes?

Severe weather to strike central U.S. and Tennessee Valley, a precursor to active March?