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Midwest Tornadoes 2012: Twisters Tear Across Missouri, Kansas, Illinois (PHOTOS)

By JIM SUHR and JIM SALTER 02/29/12 11:38 PM ET AP

Branson Missouri Tornado
Sherry Cousins and her brother Bruce Wallace of Hollister, Mo., sit in the wreckage of their secondhand store in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

HARRISBURG, Ill. — A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes in a small Illinois town Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest and South, killing at least 12 people in three states.

Winds also ripped through the country music mecca of Branson, Mo., damaging some of the city's famous theaters just days before the start of the busy tourist season.

The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph.

By midday, townspeople in the community of 9,000 were sorting through piles of debris and remembering their dead while the winds still howled around them.

Not long after the storm, Darrell Osman raced to his mother's home, arriving just in time to speak to her before she was taken to a hospital with a head injury, a severe cut to her neck and a broken arm and leg.

"She was conscious. I wouldn't say she was coherent. There were more mumbles than anything," he said. "She knew we were there."

Mary Osman died a short time later.

The twister that raked Branson seemed to hopscotch up the city's main roadway, moving from side to side.

As sirens blared, Derrick Washington stepped out of his motel room just long enough to see a greenish-purple sky. Then he heard the twister roar.

"Every time the tornado hit a building, you could see it exploding," he said.

At least 37 people were reported hurt, but most suffered only cuts and bruises. After the start of Branson's peak season in mid-March, up to 60,000 visitors would have been in hotels on any given day.

Just six guests were staying at J.R.'s Motor Inn, and all of them escaped injury by taking refuge in bathtubs. Engineers deemed the building a total loss after the second floor, the roof and all windows were destroyed.

Manager Lori McGauley choked back tears thinking about what might have been.

"We had 25 people booked for next week," McGauley said. "If this happened a week later, we would have lost some people."

At the 530-room downtown Hilton, intense winds sucked furniture away. Hotel workers were able to get all guests to safety.

Looking at the city's main strip, it was difficult to believe there weren't more serious injuries. A small mall was nearly completely demolished. The Legends Theater, the Andy Williams Moon River Theater and the Branson Variety Theater all sustained significant damage.

The Veterans Memorial Museum was in shambles, and a small military jet that sat in front of the museum was blown apart.

Some of the most popular theaters were barely damaged. The popular Presley's Country Jubilee was virtually unscathed, as was Yakov Smirnoff's theater. A manager at the Baldknobbers Jamboree Show expected to cancel just three or four shows before performances resume next week.

Other venues weren't so lucky. Branson Variety Theater's 1,600-seat auditorium was intact, but the lobby and gift shop were nearly destroyed. It could be almost two months before the theater's popular Twelve Irish Tenors and Shake, Rattle & Roll shows perform again.

Back in Harrisburg, Nell Cox woke up during the tornado and glanced out her window with a flashlight to see her neighbor being blown out a window.

"She crawled back to the front of my house," Cox said. She ventured outside to grab the woman, brought her indoors and summoned an ambulance.

The winds were strong enough to blow the walls off some rooms at the Harrisburg Medical Center. The staff had enough warning to move the most endangered patients. Then they heard the walls collapse, officials said.

The hospital discharged patients who could go home or moved them to other medical facilities. But they also had to confront an influx of injured.

"Helicopters have been coming in and out here all morning," said Vince Ashley, the hospital's CEO.

In the shattered neighborhoods, debris was strewn everywhere – washing machines and dyers tossed in neighbors' yards, along with kitchen sinks and sticks of lumber with nails protruding. Chunks of pink insolation added color to the disarray.

Osman and his sister sorted through the wreckage at the site of their mother's duplex, looking for photos and financial records. They found 10 old picture slides that were among a collection of hundreds. Some were caked in mud and damaged by water.

"My mother was a Christian," Osman said. "I know she's in a better place. That is the only thing getting me through this."

In Missouri, one person was killed in a trailer park in the town of Buffalo, about 35 miles north of Springfield. Two more fatalities were reported in the Cassville and Puxico areas.

Three people were reported killed in eastern Tennessee – two in Cumberland County and another in DeKalb County as storms that dropped pingpong ball-sized hail in some areas collapsed homes and downed power lines.

Emergency crews worked after nightfall to rescue injured people trapped inside homes. A medical helicopter was seen helping some of the injured.

"We have no idea what the damage is because this happened just before dark," said Doug Scarlett of the Cumberland County American Red Cross.

Mobile homes and houses were flattened in multiple cities in Kentucky, including Elizabethtown in the north-central part of the state, where a tornado with winds of 125 mph touched down. Tommy Turner, the judge-executive in nearby LaRue County, said the storm just missed a large day care and three schools.

Three buildings belonging to an Elizabethtown trucking company were heavily damaged by the violent weather, which also lashed parts of Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

"It picked the whole building up," said Jim Owen, son of the owner of Harry Owen Trucking. "It would take a group of 20 men five days with equipment to tear that down."

The tornado that barreled through the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville was an EF-2, with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state officials said. It left much of the community in rubble.

The twisters headed toward the East Coast were spawned by a powerful storm system that blew down from the Rockies on Tuesday. Authorities were sending teams to investigate Thursday to determine if tornadoes were involved in Tennessee.

Corey Mead, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said a broad cold front was slamming into warm, humid air over much of the eastern half of the nation.

Long a tourist destination for visitors attracted to the Ozark Mountains, Branson rose to prominence in the 1990s because of its theaters, which drew country music stars including Merle Haggard and Crystal Gayle, as well as other musical celebrities such as Chubby Checker and Andy Williams.

Branson is about 110 miles southeast of Joplin, which was devastated by a monstrous twister last May that killed 161 people. Memories of that disaster motivated people to take cover after the sirens sounded early Wednesday.

"I think so many people from Branson went over to help in Joplin, and having seen that, it was fresh on our minds," said Mayor Raeanne Presley, whose family owns Presleys' Theater. "We all reached for our loved ones a little sooner and got to the basement a little faster."

The Midwest and South were to get a reprieve from the menacing weather Thursday, ahead of another strong system expected Friday.

Ryan Jewell, a meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said the next system is forecast to take a path similar to Wednesday's and has the potential to inflict even more damage.

On Friday, he said, both the Midwest and South would be "right in the bull's eye."

___

Salter reported from Branson, Mo. AP photographer Robert Ray in Harrisburg, AP photographer Mark Schiefelbein in Branson and writer Janet Cappiello in Louisville, Ky., also contributed to this report.

Photos of the destruction:
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  • Shopping Mall in Harrisburg Before Storms

    Credit: <a href="http://maps.google.com/maps/place?hl=en&safe=off&gs_upl=&ix=seb&ion=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw=2005&bih=1232&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=cash+store+harrisburg,+il&fb=1&gl=us&hq=cash+store&hnear=0x8870c38d65eb5a95:0xe842f6ed698c2ce4,Harrisburg,+IL&cid=17029494789117049799&ei=JZ9PT9KiDI7tggeb-KTtDQ&sa=X&oi=local_result&ct=photo-link&cd=1&resnum=2&ved=0CBwQnwIoADAB" target="_hplink">Google</a>

  • Shopping Mall In Harrisburg After Storms

    Credit: Caleb Cattivera

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents ride past a tree that was downed by severe storms that destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A stop sign, that was bent over by severe storms, stands on a street corner in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Furniture and walls are what is left of a home the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents gather the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Volunteer fireman Jeff Woodyard recovers golf clubs from his father-in-law's home in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to the small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A stuffed toy lies in a ditch the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to the small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Luke Russell clears debris from a storm-damaged home, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harveyville, Kan. A tornado that damaged at least half of the tiny eastern Kansas town of Harveyville on Tuesday night was an EF-2 with wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph, state emergency management officials said Wednesday. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

  • <em>From AP:</em> An unidentified man enters Riggin's Market and Deli in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The business was closed due to severe storms that destroyed several homes and businesses in town. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to the small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> An unidentified man clears storm damage the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste the small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A tornado-damaged home sits amid debris along Main Street, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harveyville, Kan. The small eastern Kansas town of Harveyville took a direct hit from an apparent tornado late Tuesday, injuring at least 11 people and reducing much of the town to ruins. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Volunteers walk past storm damage in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to the small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Tammy Woodyard, center, talks to neighbor Grant Hill, right, and his daughter, Talla, about the tornado damage to her father's home behind her, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harveyville, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents walk the streets the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Tammy Woodyard, of Harveyville, surveys the wreckage of her father's home the morning after a tornado hit the town, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harveyville, Kan. Her father was unhurt. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents talk in front of a home after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents and volunteers line up for food and drink, the morning after severe storms destroyed several homes and businesses in Harveyville, Kan., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Margaret Shimkus, 61, talks with an emergency responder about her condition Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, at her home in Harrisburg, Ill., after an early morning tornado ripped through the town. Shimkus, who took refuge in her bathtub, sustained a minor cut from the early morning storm, but Dorothy Hill, her neighbor in the duplex home, was taken to a hospital with injuries. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

  • <em>From AP:</em> In this image made with a cell phone, a residential area is heavily damaged in Harrisburg, Ill., after a severe storm swept through the area early Wednesday morning, Feb. 29, 2012. A hospital administrator in Harrisburg says at least three people were killed in the storm that swept through the region. (AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton)

  • <em>From AP:</em> In this image made with a cell phone, damage is seen to a strip mall in Harrisburg, Ill., after a severe storm swept through the area early Wednesday morning, Feb. 29, 2012. A hospital administrator in Harrisburg says at least three people were killed in the storm that swept through the region. (AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton)

  • <em>From AP:</em> In this image made with a cell phone, a residential area is seen severely damaged in Harrisburg, Ill., after a severe storm swept through the area early Wednesday morning, Feb. 29, 2012. At least three people are confirmed dead in Harrisburg, said Harrisburg Medical Center CEO Vince Ashley, and the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured. (AP Photo/The Southern, Paul Newton)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A residential area in Harrisburg, Ill. is damaged after a storm passed, Wednesday , Feb. 29, 2012. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/ Stephen Lance Dennee)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Emergency crews comb through some of the damage after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Keith Hucke, left, and Devyn Byrd, 14, survey the damage sustained to Hucke's house after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. Hucke said he was in his bed when the wall right next to him collapsed during the storm. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents take in some of the damage after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Emergency crews comb through some of the damage after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Emergency crews comb through some of the damage after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Roy Mauney of Harrisburg, Ill., collects clothes from a dresser in what remains of his parents house after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Saline County city. Mauney said his parents survived the storm by taking cover in a bathtub before their house blew off its foundation and across the street. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Emergency crews comb through some of the damage after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Gene Byrd pauses for a moment while he and his son Devyn Byrd, 14, look over some of the damage sustained to a friends house after a severe storm hit in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisrbug, Ill. A severe pre-dawn storm pounded portions of southern Illinois on Wednesday. Several deaths have been reported in Harrisburg and left the city's medical center scrambling to treat an influx of injured, the hospital's top administrator said. (AP Photo/The Southern Illinoisan,Paul Newton )

  • <em>From AP:</em> Emergency responders work to clear debris in a neighborhood in Harrisburg, Ill., after an early morning tornado Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. At least six people died in Harrisburg in the pre-dawn tornado. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Paul Johnson with Larry's Electric, works on the electrical system at Harrisburg Medical Center after an early morning tornado damaged the hospital Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisburg, Ill. At least six people died in Harrisburg in the pre-dawn tornado. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Debris lies on the ground outside Nell Cox's Harrisburg, Ill. home Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, where a tornado ripped through earlier in the day. Cox, a cancer survivor who lives alone, awoke during the tornado, shined a flashlight out her window and saw her neighbor, who was ejected from her bed and out a window, lying in a ditch. Cox, who is in her seventies, went outside and brought the woman to safety until emergency services came. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A prosthetic leg found among the debris caused by a tornado that ripped through Harrisburg, Ill. leans against a damaged home Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The tornado that blasted Harrisburg, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Family members and friends try to salvage what they can after a tornado destroyed their neighborhood homes Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisburg, Ill. The tornado that blasted Harrisburg, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • <em>From AP:</em> People try to salvage what they can after a tornado destroyed homes in their neighborhood Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisburg, Ill. The tornado that blasted Harrisburg, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Jeff Rann, 29, right, pauses while sifting for possessions in the remains of their parents' duplex trying to salvage what he can after a tornado destroyed their parents home Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Harrisburg, Ill. Their parents were cancer survivors Randy Rann, 65, and Donna Rann. Randy died at the scene and his wife died later at a hospital. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg talks about the destruction from a tornado as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn listens during a news conference in Harrisburg, Ill., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. The tornado that blasted Harrisburg in southern Illinois, killing six, was an EF4, the second-highest rating given to twisters based on damage. Scientists said it was 200 yards wide with winds up to 170 mph. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A utility worker tries to free storm debris suspended in a power line in Branson, Mo., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. An apparent tornado hopscotched through the city's main tourist district overnight, causing damage for miles. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Tim Thress, left, of Branson, and Wake Williams of Omaha, Ark., help carry merchandise out of a friend's storm-damaged store in Branson, Mo., Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. Powerful storms that produced reports of multiple tornadoes and killed at least nine people elsewhere in the Midwest tore through the music resort town early this morning, injuring more than three dozen people. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A gas station is damaged and power lines are down in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> A toppled sign lies in a street Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Branson, Mo. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/The News-Leader, Valerie Mosley)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Storm debris is piled near the entrance to the Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Residents walk amid downed power lines in their neighborhood in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Metal debris is wrapped around trees and windows are shattered at the Ozark Mountain Inn in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Debris lies around the Midtown Cafe Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Branson, Mo. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/The News-Leader, Valerie Mosley)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Debris lies around the Legends Theater Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Branson, Mo. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/The News-Leader, Valerie Mosley)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Power lines lie on the ground Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Branson, Mo. A powerful storm system lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson and laying waste to a small town in Kansas.(AP Photo/The News-Leader, Valerie Mosley)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Windows and doors blown out of their frames rest against railings at a hotel in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

  • <em>From AP:</em> Sherry Cousins and her brother Bruce Wallace of Hollister, Mo., sit in the wreckage of their secondhand store in Branson, Mo, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. A powerful storm system that produced multiple reports of tornadoes lashed the Midwest early Wednesday, roughing up the country music resort city of Branson. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

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