GREENSBURG, Kan. - Anxiety mounted here yesterday as rescue teams continued combing through the ruins of this country town in a long-shot search for survivors two days after a violent tornado took nine lives and leveled nearly everything.

As more than 40 searchers scanned the heaps of bricks and wooden beams for signs of life, National Guard troops and state law-enforcement officers barred families from returning to their former homes, frustrating many survivors eager to reclaim old scrapbooks and other priceless mementos.

"We realize they're trying to find people who are missing. But it would be nice to go in there and get some things before the rain ruins everything," Sarah Coates, 24, said as she left a nearby emergency shelter with her grandmother. "My aunt would really like to get her wedding ring."

Officials said four soldiers from nearby Fort Riley Army base were arrested and accused of looting, further upsetting residents and business owners eager to reclaim whatever they could. The soldiers were being held at the Pratt County Jail after they allegedly were caught stealing cigarettes and beer from a crumpled storefront.

"They had no authority to be there," Sgt. Major Steve Rodina of the Kansas Army National Guard said of the soldiers.

State and federal officials said they had no idea how many of Greensburg's estimated 1,500 residents remained missing, because families had scattered, making it difficult to know who was really unaccounted for. But they vowed to keep searching as long as there was hope of finding a survivor in the town's debris-covered basements.

"We never want to give up on someone," said R.L. Knoeffel, a spokesman for the Kansas State Police. "It would have been nice if you could have seen this beautiful little town as it once was. Now it's all gone."

Small as it was, Greensburg, about a two-hour drive west of Wichita in southwest Kansas, was considered the economic hub of its region. It was renowned as the home of the world's largest hand-dug well and for having a 1,000-pound meteorite on display in the center of town. After the twister, the well was destroyed, and the meteorite is nowhere to be found.

At the east end of the two-lane highway that passes through the town, a motel stands largely intact, and a small bar beckons with a large sign advertising Budweiser beer. But with every step west, the tornado's toll grows grimmer, the structures harder to recognize.

A hardware store is missing its roof, but still has wrenches neatly hanging up for sale on a display wall. A block farther, wooden houses are crumpled flat like deflated balloons. Beyond that, for about a dozen blocks, little remains but mounds of rubble.

The National Weather Service said the tornado that struck Greensburg on Friday night had winds of more than 200 miles per hour and was 1.4 miles wide as it went through the town.

President Bush declared the region a federal disaster area yesterday. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebeliuspromised residents that they would be allowed to return to their homes today.