GRANBURY, Texas (Reuters) - Six people were dead and seven missing after a powerful tornado ripped through a neighborhood that included housing for the poor in the north Texas town of Granbury, marking the deadliest severe storm outbreak in the United States so far this year.
Authorities were assessing damage and searching through rubble on Thursday afternoon, hoping to find survivors among the twisted metal and splintered wood of flattened homes.
"This tornado was a monster," said Hood County Commissioner Steve Berry. "It's just devastating."
The tornado, which brought winds of 166-200 miles per hour, was rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service (NWS), the second-most powerful level for such a storm, said NWS meteorologist Mark Wiley.
EF4 tornadoes are rare and can blow away a well constructed wood or brick home, according to weather service ratings.
Granbury, a town of 8,000 people about 35 miles southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, took the hardest hit.
Officials counted six dead in Hood County, where Granbury is located, said county spokesman, Tye Bell. Another seven were missing and at least 45 people were injured, with most of the victims coming from the Rancho Brazos subdivision of approximately 110 mostly single-family homes.
HID IN CLOSET
Ronna Cotten, 38, was home with three of her four children when the sirens went off. She and the children, ages 14, 12 and 8, hid in a hallway closet as the twister ripped the roof off their home. When she emerged with her children after the storm passed, Cotten saw "bodies everywhere," she said.
"We're trying to figure out what to do one step at a time," she said.
Frank Gamez, a construction worker in Granbury, said he found the body of a friend as he and other people searched the neighborhood after the tornado hit Wednesday evening.
"We lost one of our friends. We found him laying on the ground," Gamez said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement saying he was "deeply saddened" by the deaths, and that state officials were assisting with local needs.
"The thoughts of 26 million Texans are with those suffering today," Perry said.
The area hit included 61 homes built by Habitat for Humanity, the charity said on its website. Habitat for Humanity uses volunteers to build and repair homes for low-income residents.
Gamez said one Habitat for Humanity home that was to be officially presented to a poor family this weekend, was completely destroyed.
"There's nothing there but concrete slabs," he said.
Angela Jackson, 47, said her home, which was built by Habitat for Humanity 11 years ago, suffered roof damage and broken windows but was still standing.
"We've had high winds before and hail but nothing like this," Jackson said. "It was a freak storm."
In nearby Parker County, about 14 homes and farms had severe roof damage and other structural damage and a few buildings were destroyed, said Parker County Judge Mark Riley. No injuries or deaths were reported.
Preliminary reports showed that the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Granbury 26 minutes before the twister struck, according to Wiley. That is an unusually long lead time as the average warning time is 10 to 12 minutes, he said.
Until Wednesday, the tornado season had been unusually mild so far in 2013 after two years of intense activity. Only three people have died in tornadoes so far in 2013, according to weather service statistics.
The deadliest tornado year in decades was 2011 when 553 people were killed, including 161 from a massive tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri in May that year.
In March 2012, at least 39 people were killed in a chain of tornadoes from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico. A total of 70 people were killed in tornadoes last year.
The tornado season in the United States typically starts in the Gulf Coast states in the late winter, and then moves north with the warming weather, peaking around May and trailing off by July.
More stormy weather is expected later on Thursday in northeast Texas, southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, but not in the area of Texas hit by tornadoes on Wednesday, the weather service said.