3 die in storms in southern Missouri on Friday

Friday, May 8, 2009 | 4:29 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Three people were killed Friday as storms with strong winds, heavy rains and possibly tornadoes rumbled across southern Missouri.

National Weather Service offices in Springfield and St. Louis received multiple reports of tornadoes from one end of the state to the other, mostly south of Interstate 44. The service sent out teams to determine if tornadoes had in fact touched down.

Many counties reported winds of 80 mph and higher. Several people were hurt, mostly when wind damaged their homes or businesses, but a few from flash floods.

Two people were killed near Poplar Bluff when the wind knocked over a tree onto their car on Route 53, Butler County Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Thurman said. The victims were identified as Grover and Wanda Neeley of Campbell.

In Dallas County, a strong wind suspected to be a tornado lifted a couple in their 70s from their frame home and tossed them into a field, 75 to 100 feet away, county emergency management director Larry Highfill said. The man died of a heart attack; his wife was taken to a Springfield hospital. Her condition wasn't immediately known. Their names were not released.

Seven other people in sparsely populated Dallas County were also hurt as wind destroyed 50 homes. Highfill said all the damaged homes were in the same path, a strong hint that a tornado was to blame.

The storm system left tens of thousands without power, including, at the peak, 60,000 customers in the Joplin area. Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

In St. Francois County, 911 director Alan Wells said several people suffered moderate injuries from wind damage at their homes. Roofs were torn off of many homes and businesses. A tractor-trailer overturned on U.S. 67 near Park Hills.

Wind wasn't the only problem. Many parts of the state received 3 inches of rain or more. Flash flooding forced authorities to rescue several people from cars and homes in St. Francois County. Flash flooding also closed roads from Springfield through Cape Girardeau.

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency.

"My primary concern is the safety of Missourians and this executive order makes state agency resources available to help communities respond to the storms," Nixon said.

In Joplin, strong winds knocked down a big section of KSNF-TV's tower shortly after 7 a.m., crushing a vehicle and damaging two homes. It appeared that no one was hurt.

Keith Johnston told The Joplin Globe he was not at home when the tower collapsed, but his wife and two kids were.

"My wife said she heard the wind come up and got the kids into the closet," he said. "They heard a booming noise and thought the tower fell."

Winds blew out windows in downtown Joplin.

About a dozen homes in Laclede County were destroyed or had major damage, emergency director Jonathan Ayres said.

"It does look tornadic from the surveys we have done," Ayres said. "Right now, we're just trying to help these people salvage what they can before dark."

Flooding also caused widespread problems in Laclede County, shutting down several roads and washing away part of a railroad track.

Dan Wadlington, a spokesman for Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said roofs were damaged at two high schools near Springfield, at the towns of Ash Grove and Fair Grove. He said Blunt was prepared to seek federal aid if the damage was significant.

Storm spotters said a house in the Springfield area was flattened. An air-conditioning unit was blown off the roof of a Walmart Superstore near Kimberling City, damaging the roof.

Fredericktown, about 85 miles southwest of St. Louis, reported damage to several businesses. Another eastern Missouri town, Potosi, reported baseball-sized hail.

Several communities — Joplin, Buffalo, Willard and Elkland among them — opened shelters for those left homeless by the storms.

Associated Press Writer Cheryl Wittenauer contributed to this report.


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