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Survivors of a monster tornado that destroyed or severely damaged nearly every home and business in the small farming community of Greensburg, Kansas are recovering and wondering how they managed to escape.
"I never thought I'd have my babies go through an F5 tornado and survive. We're very lucky to have survived," Kim Jacobitz told TODAY during a live interview from her hospital bed at Pratt Regional Medical Center.
At least eight people in this community of 1,500 are dead, putting the state’s total death toll at 10 after a series of tornadoes and severe storms over the weekend.
Jacobitz, who lives in Nebraska, had just arrived at her mother's home in Greensburg Friday night when the tornado sirens began wailing. She grabbed her two children, a son and 5-month-old daughter, and ran down to the basement and waited. Ten minutes went by before the twister began pounding the house with winds estimated at over 200 mph.
"We were in the basement. The pressure just built up and our ears were popping. The electricity went out," Jacobitz said. "My mom just threw a blank over my son and I covered my baby. The house was picked up and set to the right where the basement area is."
Jacobitz has four pelvic fractures, required staples to close a head wound, and suffered a black eye and numerous cuts and abrasions.
The tornado that struck Greensburg on Friday night was one of a series of powerful storms that swept across parts of Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Greensburg, the hardest hit community, saw its entire Main Street business district wiped out and almost every home in town was damaged to some extent. The National Weather Service listed the Friday night tornado as an F-5, the highest category, and estimated winds as high as 205 mph. The massive twister moved on a track 1.7 miles wide and 22 miles long.
Scott Huck, another patient at Pratt, was banged up as well but somehow escaped the pounding his crop-dusting truck took without breaking any bones.
Huck stopped working when the sirens sounded and headed in to town, where he hoped a gas station's canopy would provide some protection.
"I was trying to get away from the hail. That's where I was when the tornado hit," Huck said. "The wind started blowing really hard. The owning of the Co-Op gas station came down on top of the machine, and the machine started rocking."
Huck's truck was thrown violently on its side, and windows blew out. He crawled out of a broken window, not too seriously injured.
"Very lucky," Huck said.
Miraculous tales of survivalAmid the death and devastation, there were other stories of miraculous survival.
Greensburg resident Dennis McKinney, a state legislator, was worried about his neighbor and her new baby as he and his 14-year-old daughter, Lindy, made their way down to the basement of their home. As the roof starting coming off, McKinney became more worried about the neighbors.
“I was frantic … We didn’t know where they were at,” McKinney told Roker in a live interview on TODAY.
When the storm passed, McKinney emerged from the bathtub he'd rode the storm out in and could not believe his eyes. His house was destroyed. So was the neighbor’s.
“It was gone. Destroyed. There was a pile of rubble there,” he said. “I couldn’t see how anyone could possible be alive in there. I went over and this [voice] came out, ‘Please save my baby. Please help me, we’re trapped. Save my baby.’ “
Neighbors joined forces and began pulling the rubble away and found the mother and child unhurt, save for a few scratches.
“There’s this baby there looking at me. Big eyes looking at me saying, ‘What took you so long?’" McKinney said.
His teenage daughter, who helped in the search, said the scene was beyond anything she had ever witness or imagined.
“It’s unreal,” she said. “It’s still sinking in.”
Widespread devastation In addition to the dead, more than 50 people were injured in the storm. The number of dead and hurt could have been much higher, had the region's early warning system not worked properly, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius told TODAY's Al Roker.
"Hundreds of lives would have been lost without the warning. People were able to take shelter, and were able to help friends and neighbors who didn't have basements," Sebelius said.
As the injured recover and families prepare to say goodbye to those who died, Sebelius said the state will begin the process of rebuilding Greensburg.
"It's devastation beyond belief. We've had serious tornadoes in Kansas over and over again," she said. "But a whole community wiped out at once is unbelievable."