Tornado Toll at 22 and Could Go Higher

Rural Newton County in Missouri and a near-abandoned Oklahoma town called Picher are hit hardest.


 
 

Miguel Bustillo and P.J. Huffstutter | | Sunday, May 11, 2008


HOUSTON -- Search-and-rescue teams looked desperately for survivors Sunday after the latest barrage of tornadoes barreled through several states, killing at least 22 people.

The outbreak of devastating twisters Saturday evening -- at least the fourth major tornado disaster this year in the U.S. -- took its heaviest toll in Missouri, where 13 were killed in rural Newton County and two elsewhere in the state.

The tornado touched down in Missouri's southwest corner around 6 p.m. Saturday and cut a path of destruction nearly a mile wide at some points, according to National Weather Service officials. It left dozens injured and thousands without power. State officials said the death toll might rise.

"We've got some critically injured people in hospitals, and we're hoping they survive," said Susie Stonner, a spokeswoman for Missouri's emergency management agency. "This is a pretty rural area and we're still trying to get a handle on how many were hurt, because a lot of buildings are just gone."

The National Guard is helping out, she said.

Just across the state line in northeast Oklahoma, six were reported dead in Picher, which was ripped apart earlier by what may have been the same tornado. It was a final indignity for the pollution-scarred former zinc and lead mining town, which was about to be abandoned under a government buyout program because it is literally sinking.

"The town was in the process of closing up, but there were still several hundred people here in town and their houses are just destroyed," said John Sparkman, head of Picher's housing authority, whose own home was damaged. "I know some of the people [who are] dead. Some of my friends lost everything. It's just unbelievable what's happened."

Houses, cars and businesses in a 20-square-block area on Picher's south end were devastated, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. In many cases, only slabs remained. Witnesses described seeing shocked people, some of them stained with blood, wandering the streets. One woman was rescued after a man spotted her fingers sticking out of the rubble.

More than 150 were injured.

By Sunday afternoon, Gov. Brad Henry and other state officials had declared that all of Picher's roughly 800 residents were accounted for.

People, debris clog roads

In Missouri, most of the casualties were in Neosho, a town of 11,200 in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Entire neighborhoods were leveled, with wood-frame homes lifted off their foundations and smashed across roads and fields, said Jason Schaumann, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Springfield, Mo.

The storm system generated at least eight tornadoes, some as powerful as a 3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which estimates storms' strength from 0 to 5 based on damage. A 3 means winds were 136 to 165 mph.

In the hours after the tornado, rescue crews were blocked by downed trees and power lines in rural roads. In some cases, pieces of homes and cars had been hurled half a mile. By Sunday morning, groups of families and friends -- frantically looking for loved ones in Neosho who couldn't be reached by phone -- joined crowds of curious spectators, clogging roads further.

"We're just so thankful that my parents are healthy and alive," said Will Lant, whose mother and father had closed their bridal shop outside Racine, Mo., just before the storm hit. The shop was destroyed, and on Sunday, muddy tuxedos littered the roadway and clung to broken branches.

In Georgia, a set of tornadoes killed at least one person in the town of Dublin, and more than 80,000 people lost power, mainly in the Atlanta and Macon metropolitan areas. More than 70,000 were still without power as of Sunday afternoon, according to Georgia Power spokeswoman Carol Boatright.

President Bush, who was at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, for the wedding Saturday of his daughter Jenna, offered his condolences and promised federal aid.

"Mother's Day is a sad day for those who lost their lives in Oklahoma and Missouri and Georgia," the president said in a statement, adding, "The federal government will be moving hard to help."

A bad year

Numerous twisters have already dealt heavy damage across the Midwest and South this year. They include a February cluster that killed more than 50 people in Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, and a March tornado that roared through the heart of Atlanta, damaging the Georgia Dome and injuring dozens.

Some survivors of this weekend's storms, including one California transplant, said they won't soon forget them.

Ladonna Peeples and her husband were relaxing Saturday in their log cabin in Neosho when their phone rang. It was their son and daughter-in-law, calling from a nearby Lowe's.

"They said that they were hiding in the store's shelter, that a tornado was coming and we needed to hide," said Peeples, 47, a real estate agent who moved to Missouri from California's Merced County four years ago.

By the time Peeples rounded everyone up -- her mother was visiting from California -- "there was hail the size of grapefruit coming down and the sky was rotating," she said.

When the storm had passed, the Peeples' home was one of two still standing in her neighborhood.

Her in-laws' trailer was splintered rubble. So were two of the houses that she had just listed for sale.

"My son ran over here last night afterward, climbing over trees and racing to make sure we were OK," Peeples said. "This morning, he showed up with a chain saw . . . and carrying a Mother's Day gift." It was a cookbook, filled with recipes of Southern comfort food.

"As soon as the power comes back, I'm going to start cooking," Peeples said. "I'm a stress cooker, and right now, I'm about as stressed out as I've ever been."




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