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Volume 31, Issue 4

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This May, a prime time for tornadoes in the Midwest, we saw an unprecedented amount of storm activity that struck at the heart of municipal infrastructure across the Plains states and into the South. More than 50 lives – and millions of dollars worth of property – were lost in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma alone.

“By Saturday, May 3, about 300 tornadoes had been reported since the start of May, about 100 more than the most recent comparable rash, in 1999,” according to Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

A weather system in which an existing warm air mass was hit by a jet stream from the southwest created a situation ripe for producing the thunderstorms that give birth to tornadoes, resulting in 74 twisters tearing across Oklahoma, southern Kansas and western Missouri.

“It’s extremely rare to have so many large outbreaks so close together, affecting such a large area, and be so destructive,” said McCarthy.
Seven Missouri towns – Battlefield, Franklin, Jackson, Liberty, Stockton, Jackson and Pierce City – were hit right downtown.

“We had two states involved, plus it was ongoing in many, many locations,” said Dick Hainje, FEMA regional director for Kansas and Missouri. “The tornadoes in Jackson, near Cape Girardeau, were really bad. It was a direct hit in the middle of the town. You can go to Liberty where the tornado hit in the center of town, in the city hall area. You can go to Franklin where it hit the middle of town, and took a big chunk. You can go to Pierce City, Stockton, and Jackson where it hit right downtown. That is not common.

“I think the number of city halls damaged by tornadoes was six or seven. Battlefield had tremendous damage right through the heart of town. The long-term story of this particular outbreak is going to be how it directly impacted so many places right in their heart.

 “The storm hit directly on numerous fire stations. I talked to the fire chief in Jackson and they were standing behind the fire station. They went out to see if there was a tornado around and all of a sudden there was a lightning strike and they saw it. They ran down and got a couple of steps into the basement – which was lucky because the tornado came right through where they had been. When he came out later his car, which had been parked right in front of the fire station, was across the parking lot smashed into the HAZMAT van.”

 The government’s job is to respond to disasters.

However, according to Hainje, “People were delayed in getting there because of the storm.

Especially in Stockton it took time to get damage assessments because some of the areas were so hard to get to and cell phones didn’t work.”

Yet, even with its head cut off the system still worked. Like the Internet, which kept on working during our nation’s 9/11 disasters in New York and Washington, D.C., our disaster relief system kicked in and performed heroically while self-reliant local residents pulled together to help each other.

At either end of a 45-mile long tornado track, the west Missouri cities of Pierce City and Battlefield were particularly hard hit.

“Sept. 11 was one of my first thoughts when I emerged from the armory,” said Mark Peters, mayor of Pierce City. “The dead cars, it looked bombed out, with all the glass out and all the dust. Actually it was probably my second. The first was plain old, pure old amazement.”

Emergency response was swift. According to Peters, “I was contacted by the state emergency management folks about five minutes after it happened. They mobilized and they got back to us. I saw the first FEMA guy the next day. We had state police within two hours. We had people from the city of Monett, a neighboring city, within minutes. There was an emergency management conference up the road in Monett so we actually had several different agencies and several different layers of emergency folks hit us in waves just hours after it happened.”

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the town’s most pressing needs were for search and rescue teams, security, and police to reroute traffic around the town. Pierce City has a major highway running through it and they also needed infrastructure experts fast. Luckily, the city is home to a Combat Engineers National Guard outfit well versed in the art of capping gas lines.

 “When I got to city hall, maybe seven to 10 minutes after the thing hit, people were already there with pipe wrenches going around shutting off lines themselves and we’re talking not 15 minutes into this thing.

“Communications were tough for us. The land lines were down and stayed down for quite some time. The town of Monett, which is kind of our big brother, lost its electric power and we had some real problems throughout with electricity. Cellular systems were overloaded with people calling in and out from all over the area – and even cell phones weren’t working too well at first.”

To solve the communication problem the town instituted weekly Monday night meetings at a fixed location, postings on bulletin boards and messengers to neighborhoods.

A high point of this period, according to Peters, was a visit by President George W. Bush on May 13, 2003.

“He came down and visited,” said Peters. “It helped the morale of folks. The positive attention never hurts and I’m glad he came.”

Some time later, as the phones and televisions came back on, new realities began to sink in. Pierce City has received an advance payment from FEMA that will allow them to finish removal of debris and to begin the demolition of much of the former downtown area including historic buildings damaged beyond repair.
“But more than just historic buildings,” laments the mayor, “we lost our business district from end to end. We had 60 business licenses out the day it hit, and 41 of those were complete losses by the end of the day. Our sales tax base was virtually wiped out in a single evening and that has really hurt us in ways we are only now beginning to find out.”

The city’s newest fire truck – which was demolished in the storm – had been financed by bonds that had been serviced by sales taxes. Now the local government is busy raising new funds to cover the bonds. At the moment, it is impossible to buy gas, food, hardware in Pierce City, but those businesses are

“I have every faith that this town will survive,” said Mayor Peters. “In 10 years it will be better than it would have been.”

The tornado made the city of Battlefield seem much like the battlefield it had once been during the Civil War. Debris from torn apart houses was everywhere.

Mayor Michelle Heslep, speaking from the damaged but still usable city hall, said the town’s fire station and police headquarters was completely destroyed.
In the aftermath of the storm people were evacuated from their homes to protect them from downed power lines. A huge problem was controlling the crowds of people who came out to view the damage and protecting property from vandals.

The National Guard sent troops, and the Greene County Sheriff’s office provided police officers, as did other cities in the area. A temporary curfew was enforced.
According to Heslep, the extra security was necessary because, “Believe it or not, we had people out here taking things that didn’t belong to them.”

FEMA is helping to defray costs of cleanup and the extra police hours necessitated by the storm in Battlefield.

While lack of power was an ongoing problem, the town is fortunate to have buried phone lines that still functioned after the storm.

“I never want to do it again,” said Heslep, “but everything has come together very well. I’ve heard from people that have been to some of the other cities (hit by tornadoes), they say that the city of Battlefield has recovered very well.

“We’ve had hundreds of volunteers in here helping us, which has helped tremendously. With the exception of some areas, we’re pretty much back to – as far as debris removal – to what it looked like before. A lot of houses are still being built on and that will take a long time.”

“Back to normal” is a hard concept to talk about in Moore, Okla., which has been hit by tornadoes three times since 1998.

“We had a tornado in 1999,” said Steve Eddy, city manager. “We were almost back to 100 percent, maybe 95 percent. About all the houses and businesses had been rebuilt, so we were just about healed and got hit again.

“We had probably 600 houses totally destroyed in 1999. This year probably less than 200. It’s still bad, of course, but not near as bad. It’s not our favorite thing to deal with, but we’re getting pretty good at it now. We couldn’t afford to do all this cleanup, and pay for all the work that has to be done, if FEMA weren’t there.”

“The Red Cross and the Salvation Army both have been life savers for us, too.

The Red Cross put up a center where people can come if they’re homeless within a few hours of both of our tornadoes. They help us tremendously.

“It’s hard to say what normal is around here. It’s not back to normal because we still have a lot of cleanup to do and a lot of houses that still need to be demolished. You drive down I-35, which runs through the heart of town, and you see these motels that haven’t been demolished yet so it doesn’t look like it’s normal but it’s pretty much back-to-normal activities as far as what we’re dealing with on a routine basis.”

David Leben, president of Perm-A-Store, Inc., has worked with Disaster Recovery Journal since its inception, both as a board member and a writer. He has served as a board member in the disaster recovery industry around the world. Last month, Leben had an opportunity to survey the damage caused by the tornadoes that swept across his home state of Kansas and other Plains states.