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Archive for Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Hard-hit areas begin to clean up

Regional damage could total $20 million

May 6, 2003

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— Searchers using dogs and heavy equipment went from one crumbled home to another Monday after tornado-packed storms flattened communities in three states and killed at least 38 people. Ten people were missing, including eight in this southwestern Missouri town.

It was "the most devastating series of tornadoes we've ever had in the state of Missouri," Gov. Bob Holden said after walking the rubble-strewn streets of Pierce City.

The storms were blamed for at least 18 deaths in Missouri, seven in Kansas and 13 in Tennessee, where a single tornado carved a 65-mile path of destruction. The storms also brought hail and heavy rain; three of the victims drowned trying to drive on a flooded road near Nashville, Tenn.

"It's worse than a nightmare," said Stacy Silverwood, whose grandparents were killed by a twister that blew part of their Camden County, Mo., house down a hill and into a pond a half-mile away.

In Kansas, 80 homes were damaged or destroyed in Crawford County, at least 20 of them in the Franklin area.

"It wiped out a third of the town, I hate to say it," said Eldon Bedene, the county emergency management director. "The trees are like somebody came in and cut them off 10 feet above the ground."

The storms were part of a huge weather system that also spawned twisters Sunday and early Monday in Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Dakota and Nebraska. The National Weather Service posted new tornado warnings in Kentucky and Tennessee as the storm system moved eastward.

Federal assistance

The governors in Kansas and Missouri each asked President Bush to declare hard-hit areas of their states disaster areas, beginning the process to try to qualify for federal disaster assistance. Insurance adjusters could not provide a specific estimate Monday of the cost of property damage, but said it could be more than $20 million. If a federal disaster is declared, it would make assistance available to individuals and governments to help with uninsured losses and cleanup.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who toured sites in Wyandotte County Monday afternoon by helicopter and met with residents, declared a disaster area in seven counties, including Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Miami counties in the metro area. At least 600 structures were damaged in Wyandotte County.

President Bush, visiting Little Rock, Ark., said the government would move as quickly as possible to help the storm-damaged areas.

People still missing

In Pierce City, where Sunday's storms killed two people and struck nearly every home and business in the town of 1,400, Mayor Mark Peters said tornado warning sirens sounded in advance.

A hand-scrawled list on the door of City Hall listed eight townspeople as "possibly missing," but town officials were hopeful they would be found alive.

Several other names had been marked through, replaced by reassuring entries about those people's whereabouts.

Officials initially feared the missing were dead in the rubble of the National Guard Armory, where several townspeople took shelter as the storm approached. One body was found in the building during the night.

But after searchers accompanied by dogs dug through the debris, regional emergency official Glenn Dittmar said he was nearly certain no one else would be found in the armory.

Many residents checked on their neighbors and hugged when they found each other.

Richard and Darlene Young had been talking about having a tree removed from their front yard in Pierce City when the storm struck. "Me and the wife and the little dog got in the bedroom closet," Richard Young said.

When the Youngs emerged, they found that tree was unharmed, but it had been joined in their yard by the bell tower from the neighboring First Congregational Church.

Widespread destruction

One of the hardest hit areas was Madison County, Tenn., where 10 people were killed. Rescue crews with cadaver dogs were searching a small lake for a father and son who were missing.

In Jackson, the county seat, streets were blocked by fallen trees, twisted sheets of metal, power lines and bricks. Officials said at least 70 homes east of downtown Jackson were destroyed and streets were littered with snapped trees and utility poles.

Among the survivors in Jackson was retiree T.E. White, 69, who huddled in a closet with his three young grandchildren while a tornado ripped off the front porch and part of his roof.

"I didn't have time to be scared," White said. "When I came out and saw what happened, then I got scared."

In Jackson, a tornado warning was issued 22 minutes before the twister hit. That gave lawyer Joe Byrd and law clerk Jen Free plenty of time to get from his office to a concrete storage area in the basement.

"It's like downtown Baghdad," Byrd said of the destruction he found when they emerged from the shelter. Free, 24, said she ran to a nearby hotel to help get the elderly out of their apartments.

"I was knocking on doors, yelling to everyone they needed to get out," Free said. "They were walking down the stairs holding hands and being amazingly calm."

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