Tornado death toll climbs to 15 in Missouri

Sunday, May 11, 2008 | 5:20 p.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Bobby Turley helps pack up a coworker's belongings from his destroyed home near Racine on Sunday. A series of deadly storms killed at least 21 people in southwest Missouri and northeast Oklahoma on Saturday night.

SENECA — Search efforts were called off Sunday evening in southwest Missouri after a killer tornado swept through this sparsely populated countryside, leaving at least 15 people dead.

Rescue operations ended after a day of searching through demolished homes and debris-strewn fields along the 12-mile-long path of the tornado, said Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Dan Bracker.

Thirteen of the dead were in Newton County near the Oklahoma border, with one person killed in Jasper County and one in Barry County.

Between 8,000 and 9,000 people were reported without power, which is expected to take at least a week to restore.

Susan Roberts, 61, stared at the smashed remains of her classic 1985 Cadillac sitting on her living room floor — the only thing left of her home. A woman who had apparently sought shelter in the car died there, she said.

“That is what is tearing me up,” Roberts said, adding she had warned the woman — who had stopped to change a tire — about the nearby tornado.

Roberts said she left her rental home just six minutes before the tornado hit about 6 p.m. Saturday, taking her 13-year-old grandson with her because he is afraid of tornados. A storm spotter stopped to warn her of the tornado as she was leaving.

“I’m from Kansas. I grew up watching storms,” she said as she walked through the debris.

The same storm system started in Oklahoma, where it killed seven people before moving into southwest Missouri. On Sunday, storms in Georgia killed at least one person there.

President Bush has talked with Gov. Matt Blunt to express his condolences for the lives lost and to discuss the state’s needs for recovery, said White House spokesman Blair Jones.

“The federal government will be moving hard to help,” Bush said.

Susie Stonner, spokeswoman for the State Emergency Management Agency, 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.

Columbia residents escaped the bad weather in the south, but strong windstorms still swept through the community Saturday night, causing power outages and some trees to fall throughout the night.

According to the National Weather Service in St. Louis, winds rose to an unseasonable 55 mph at 3 a.m.

MU’s Sanborn Field weather station recorded a maximum wind speed for this time last year at 26.7 mph.

Winds of this caliber are more typical for the winter or early spring, said Ben Miller of the National Weather Service. But even then, winds of this strength would be unusual.

The winds were caused by a pressure gradient difference. The winds are channelled through two pressure systems, said Ben Sipprell, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in St. Louis.

“The pressure difference between the high pressures in the central plains and the low pressures of the mid-Atlantic caused the very strong winds to occur,” he said.

Despite the strong winds, no severe damage or injuries were reported. The Columbia Fire Department received eight calls throughout the night reporting lines down or transformer fires, which could be attributed to the high winds.

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

The tornado that swept through the area was about 300 yards wide and stayed mostly on the ground for about 12 miles. It hit the rural area about eight miles north of Seneca and went east, Stammer said. The tornado stayed on the ground about 15 minutes.

Next door to Roberts, Jane Lant climbed over the splintered wood to go through the mud-caked remains of her bridal shop.

“I just feel so awful, going through this rubble when they are out looking for bodies,” she said. An unidentified body lay under a blue tarp nearby.

Among the dead were five family members of her neighbor who had been going to a wedding when the tornado caught their vehicle on the highway in front of her store, she said.

“This is just surreal,” she said.

Across the street at the home of Wayne Litherland, family and friends were busy carting furniture and other belongings out of the storm-damaged home and into a large trailer. Their roof was blown off, and a car in their driveway was thrown 140 feet away.

“We ran to the store to get Mother’s Day cards,” he said. “We came home, and this is what we found.”

It took them awhile to find the dog they had left in the house.

“Trucks are just trucks, cars are just cars, clothes are just clothes,” Litherland said. “There are people who lost loved ones.”

­— Missourian reporter Whitney Harris contributed to this report.

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