PICHER, Okla. - Crews and search dogs hunted Sunday for survivors or bodies in piles of debris after tornadoes and storms rumbled across the region a day earlier and killed at least 21 people in three states.

Six people died in Picher, once a bustling mining center of 20,000 that dwindled to about 800 people as families fled lead pollution there, and officials held out hope that they wouldn't find any more bodies.

Residents said the tornado created a surreal scene as it tore through town Saturday afternoon, injuring 150 people, overturning cars, damaging dozens of homes and throwing mattresses and twisted metal high into the canopy of trees.

"I swear I could see cars floating," said Herman Hernandez, 68. "And there was a roar, louder and louder."

Ed Keheley was headed to town to help out Saturday night when he heard a woman screaming. He looked over to see her hand reaching out of debris.

"She was sitting in the bathtub, she had curlers in her hair and she wanted out of there," said Keheley, who along with several others pulled her out.

The same storm system then moved into southwestern Missouri, where tornadoes killed at least 14 people. The system moved eastward; on Sunday, storms in Georgia killed at least one person.

"The federal government will be moving hard to help," President Bush said. "I'll be in touch with the governors and offer all of the federal assistance we can."

In Seneca, Mo., about 32 kilometres southeast of Picher near the Oklahoma state line, crews on Sunday combed farm fields looking for bodies and survivors. Ten of the dead were killed when a twister struck near Seneca.

Nineteen people were hospitalized in Newton County, which includes Seneca, said Keith Stammer, acting spokesman the county emergency operations. He did not know the extent of their injuries.

Susie Stonner, a Missouri emergency management spokeswoman, said it was unclear how many homes were damaged or destroyed. But she said Newton County officials had initial estimates of 50 homes damaged or destroyed there.

Jane Lant was sorting through the debris of her bridal shop about 17 kilometres north of Seneca. A body wrapped in blue tarp lay next to the shop. Her husband's feed store and a home across the road were also destroyed.

Lant said they were thankful the store had closed an hour before the twister hit.

"We would have had people in here at 6 when it hit," she said.

In Picher, some homes were reduced to their foundations; others lost several walls. In one home, the tornado knocked down a bedroom wall but left clothes hanging neatly in a closet.

"People were just wandering up and down the streets. Some had blood on them; some were dazed," Keheley said.

A Best Western hotel sign was blown for kilometres before coming to rest against a post. At one home, a basketball hoop planted in concrete had its metal support twisted so the rim hung only about a metre above ground.

Broken glass was strewn around the inside of 30-year-old Michael Richardson's home, but a wrapped Mother's Day gift and a laptop computer were left unscathed on the kitchen counter.

Frank Geasland, Ottawa County's emergency manager said, a government-sponsored buyout of homes in the town left some residences vacant, and this may have prevented a greater loss of life.

The tornado could be the final straw for those remaining residents who have been reluctant to leave, said John Sparkman, head of the local housing authority. "I think people probably have had enough," he said.

"There's just nothing to build back to any more," he added.

The National Weather Service sent out a tornado warning at 5:26 p.m., 13 minutes before the tornado hit Picher, said David Jankowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Tulsa. Tornado sirens warned residents to take shelter.

The twister was the deadliest in Oklahoma since one on May 3, 1999, that killed 44 people in the Oklahoma City area.

The National Weather Service estimated that at least eight tornadoes were spawned in Oklahoma. Three teams assessing damage, meteorologist Steve Amburn said.

Officials initially said seven people died in Picher but revised that number to six on Sunday. One body was counted twice, said state Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown.

Storms also rumbled across Georgia on Sunday, killing at least one person in Dublin, about 193 kilometres southeast of Atlanta, authorities said. Weather officials had not yet confirmed whether the storms produced any tornadoes.

The body was found in the rubble of a mobile home, said Bryan Rogers, the Laurens County administrator.

A second person found in the home, who state and local authorities initially reported had died, was hospitalized in critical condition, said Lisa Janak of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Two children were also found in the wreckage but were unharmed, he said.

By Sunday afternoon, Georgia Power officials said about 70,000 residents lacked electricity across the state, mostly in the Atlanta and Macon areas.

In storm-weary Arkansas, a tornado caused "substantial structural damage" in Stuttgart, but no one was seriously injured, said Weather Service meteorologist Joe Goudsward.

Tornadoes killed 13 people in Arkansas on Feb. 5, and another seven were killed in an outbreak May 2. In between was freezing weather, persistent rain and river flooding that damaged homes and has slowed farmers in their planting.

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