FORT LEONARD WOOD — The Boone County Fire Protection District sent a search-and-rescue team to Fort Leonard Wood on Friday afternoon to help victims of a tornado that swept through the Army base early in the day.
The advance team arrived at the disaster site at 3 p.m. and began search operations before concluding their work at 6 p.m. The team was on its way home Friday night.
Columbia's team of rescuers double-checked areas that had been previously searched and investigated others that were difficult to access without proper training in structural collapse.
"They wanted to give peace of mind that there was no one trapped underneath the roof of a house," Boone County Assistant Chief Doug Westhoff said. "We are more comfortable working in such an environment."
The tornado landed at the sprawling Army base about 9:30 a.m., tearing through a neighborhood of about 75 homes. The National Weather Service estimated winds of 136 to 165 mph.
The storm not only toppled an undetermined number of buildings, but it also disrupted the base's power supply, shut off water and damaged gas lines.
Only minor injuries were reported, in large part because Fort Leonard Wood had issued holiday leave for all soldiers on base from Dec. 19 to Jan. 3.
Homes in the tornado's path were officers housing, but few people were inside Friday morning.
As Gen. David Phillips told Jeff Maddy, the chief of public information for the base: If you had to have a disaster, there couldn't have been a better time.
On a routine day, the base has a population of more than 50,000.
For those who remained at Fort Leonard Wood for the holidays, the rescue process turned out to be quick and efficient.
The fire department on base, along with civilian volunteers and military personnel, did an initial search and recovery. Residents were relocated to alternate Army lodging; a second inspection was performed; buildings were marked; and severely damaged buildings were left for specialists — such as the crew of volunteers from Boone County.
"We got a huge response today when we called, and that was great," Maddy said.
In fact, Missouri Task Force 1 was preparing to send dozens more volunteers to the military base Friday, but Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp said in a late afternoon news release that they were no longer needed.
Those who lived through the tornado, however, say it was an experience they will not soon forget.
“It was very windy and pouring down rain. Then it started hailing,” said Amber Sprow, 16, of Rolla. Sprow found shelter inside the post exchange with about 40 others.
“I was terrified,” she said.
Jessica Badolato, who was visiting her family at Fort Leonard Wood from North Carolina, said she awoke to warning sirens.
Alerting the rest of her family, she went outside with her father.
“What was really scary was that we heard it, but we couldn’t see it,” Badolato said.
She and her dad rushed back inside the home to seek shelter.
“It sounded like a train wreck,” she said. "You could hear it picking up stuff.
“We were shaken and scared in the hallway with the mattresses on top of us. My family was praying. … I felt a peace just come over me.”
Her family's house withstood the storm, but the next block of homes was not as lucky.
“We saw power lines cut, piles of cars, houses inside out,” Badolato said. “I was just devastated. I was crying.”
The Laclede Electric Cooperative worked throughout the day to restore power, and all gas lines had either been repaired or shut off by Friday night.
"Obviously, we're going to have to rebuild, in essence, an entire neighborhood," Maddy said. "It'll be weeks before they get it all cleaned up."
For families that were out of town for the holidays, the situation remains uncertain upon their return Sunday.
Community organizations that support Fort Leonard Wood from Phelps, Pulaski and Laclede counties have already shown their willingness to provide aid in the upcoming weeks, Maddy said.
"Regardless, training will commence on the third of January," he said.