Months after tornado, Stockton survives

The southwest Missouri town, leveled by the tornado, has begun the path toward rebuilding.
Monday, September 22, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

On May 4, a town of 1,960 people in southwest Missouri

was leveled by a tornado. Almost as soon as its citizens

started digging out, they began asking, ‘Can we rebuild?’

Four wooden stairs lead to absolutely nothing. A pale-blue clock, hands still, hangs from a rusted nail. An iron banister stands stiff in the blowing grass. From behind a splintered basement door, Joe Webb emerges wearing Big Smith overalls, faded at the knees, and a tight, striped pink-and-gray shirt. He bends to pick up a piece of yellow insulation and then pauses to blankly stare at the chaos around him.

“You can’t beat God,” he said as he lifted his baseball cap to wipe the beads of sweat.

His wife, Sue, stood at his side.

“It’s gone,” she said. “It’ll never be the same. Stockton is gone forever.”

The signs leading to the town read: Stockton — 11 miles. Stockton — 2 miles. Stockton — population 1,960. The clearest sign that lets people know they have arrived is a sign that doesn’t even exist. It’s a change in the landscape, an alteration in the architecture. It’s entire trees, some more than 100 years old, uprooted and cast miles away. It’s house No. 502, hollow from the inside. It’s the gas station razed to the ground.

It’s people wandering through the streets, some in a daze, trying to digest the destruction, and some busily looking for something, anything, to do.

Just two weeks before the storm, Joe and Sue were enjoying supper together. Sue, Stockton High’s librarian, had spent the weekend in Branson chaperoning the seniors’ prom and was reminiscing on “just how beautifully things had turned out.”

Neither she nor her husband knew how severe the weather conditions were. They had no idea that the next few minutes could be their last.

“The sirens went off,” Sue said with a shrug of her shoulders, “but they always go off.”

Then the couple saw the branches of the tree in the front yard fold over like the metal spokes of an umbrella. The windows began to implode.

“I didn’t have time to be afraid,” Sue said.

Neither did Wanda Cassell. Across the street, she threw down her laundry and rushed to John, her husband of 35 years, who was taking a nap. Eleven years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. In 2000, John, a diabetic, suffered from gangrene in his right leg, and the doctors were forced to amputate.

He had a prosthetic leg that he wore when he went out. But when he would retire for the night, relax in front of the TV or spend an uneventful Sunday evening at home, much like this night, he found no need to complicate his life.

Anxious, and not sure what to do, Wanda looked out her window and saw the tornado spotters speed away in an ambulance.

“That’s when I knew it was coming,” Wanda said.

If only she could move John into the wheelchair, she would find a way to roll him into the basement. Imagine the fight: John, a burly 6-foot, 170-pound man of 86 years versus Wanda, a 5-foot-2, 145-pound woman of 65 years. This was no fight. This was a battle of 10 inches, 25 pounds and 21 years.

She had to make the decision that people only debate in the hypothetical — do you leave a loved one who has fallen behind?

“I didn’t tell him there was a tornado coming,” Wanda said. “I just told him that I love him.”

Two tornadoes, a papa and a baby, were heading straight toward her house. Then, the papa devoured his young, and what were two semi-dangerous whirlwinds became one fierce tornado.

“By the time I got the basement door shut, my house started falling,” Wanda said

The chimney fell first, followed by the stairway, which landed six feet away from Wanda.

In the depths of a dark basement and a frightened heart, time doesn’t hold much meaning. Wanda’s clock seemed to tick without end before anyone made it out to Morgan Drive.

Wanda, Sue and Joe were rescued.

Jacob, Wanda’s 11-year-old grandson, found John’s body at the edge of the family’s 200-acre field.

She wishes she could go back.

“I would have called my children to help me get John into the basement,” the woman who rarely cries said between sobs. “Two of my children live a mile away from me. They were home. I had no idea that this tornado was going to create the devastation that it did.”

Wanda stared into the field.

“This is the most horrible devastation of my life.”

Two days later, Wanda’s father, who suffered from cancer, passed away at the Bolivar General Hospital, about 30 minutes away from what used to be his home.

“It’s not easy when you bury two of your family members in one week and you lose everything that it took you 40 years to get.”

She refused to give up.

“I’ve had adversity in my life. You just have to rebuild. You can’t whine and cry.”

The tornado hit Stockton at 6:30 pm on May 4, 2003. That devastation, in numbers: Three lives lost. One hundred homes destroyed. Fifty homes badly damaged. Eighty businesses demolished or nearly demolished. Sixty apartment units smashed. Five churches damaged.

That devastation, beyond numbers: Shattered lives and shattered hopes. People walking out of their houses, unable to see through the smoke and debris, yelling their neighbors’ names and crying at the sound of their voices. Mothers who searched for their children’s graves in the cemetery after the tornado ravaged the headstones. Children who no longer had a place to play because the city park, once covered by 30-foot trees, jungle gyms, merry-go-rounds, iron benches and green grass, was now the city dumping ground, with a massive 100-foot pile of trash — burned wood, smashed ovens, dented dishwashers, shredded couches, slashed fences and lifetimes of memories forming the park centerpiece. Utter destruction. Absolute devastation.

“My school is damaged. My church is gone. And I don’t have a house,” Sue said.

And so, a quiet buzz hummed through the town. People wearily wondered. They questioned quietly, as though speaking it aloud would be shameful: Should we rebuild? They held town meetings. The easy answer was no. There were other towns that were devastated by natural disasters and they chose to move on … to a new city.

This was an old town with old people who simply weren’t ready to handle another life change. The transformation the Stockton Dam brought with it 33 years ago was enough of a revolution. That dam brought an annual revenue of more than $23 million and thousands of visitors. One massive change was all many were prepared to handle.

The townspeople didn’t submit. They were determined to rebuild, even if that meant they had to finish the tornado’s unfinished work.“It was a lot easier for the town to be blown away than for it to be built back,” said Stockton’s mayor, Ralph Steele. “We had to get to ground zero. I heard that term in New York after Sept. 11, and I thought that was just a cliché the Yankees used, but when I saw what happened here, I saw that you can’t build on rubble.”

Homes whose walls were only halfway blown out had to be knocked down. Old barns were burned to ashes. Only when there was absolutely nothing could the town be something.

So, as Joe and Sue slept at night in their rental house, they woke up by day to first tear down then build up.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to rebuild,” Sue said as she looked at the empty space in her front yard where her favorite maple tree once stood.

“But then we just knew we had to,” she said.

Behind her, Joe picked up shattered glass from the driveway and squinted as a piece cut his hand.

“We are a resilient people,” he said. “We do not quit.”

Stockton’s foundation was stripped by an F-3 tornado. The third most destructive tornado possible, an F-3 can uproot a forest, overturn houses and hurl cars, just as it did in Stockton.

In addition to the homes and businesses, this tornado hit the post office, the library, the newspaper office, medial clinics and more. The post office froze all mail. When it reconvened in another location about a week later, it set up special baskets in the mailroom for addresses without houses. The library moved about 25 miles northwest to El Dorado Springs. The newspaper, the Cedar County Republic, worked out of the neighboring Bolivar Herald-Free Press for two weeks until it could rent a little office of its own. Medical clinics were relocated. Businesses set up shop in temporary trailers.

People complained about having no water. “We still have power outages every so often,” Ian Hafer, public works supervisor for the city of Stockton, said this month. “The storm weakened our infrastructure.

Volunteers came from as far as Arlington, Texas. The Salvation Army served 250 sandwiches a day. Together, with the Seventh Day Adventists, almost 2,000 families were provided with clothing, food and water. The Durham School Service donated their school buses to deliver loads of relief supplies. FEMA promised more than $3.4 million in disaster aid.

The little things didn’t go unnoticed. The Cedar County Republic printed a list of missing pets. Rhonda Simmons, who lives 103 miles away in Eldon, found Cleo Summers’ canceled check alongside her front porch, and she did everything in her power to let Summers know her check was safe with her.

“Everyone has pitched in,” Sue remarked with a smile. “This has made me a more generous person. Before I would hesitate to help. Now, without a doubt, I will help.”

Mayor Steele knew Stockton would survive, even though downtown, which lies precisely in the middle of the tornado’s path as it came west from Highway 32 and Morgan Drive, was arguably the hardest hit.

“When I saw the owners of the downtown businesses that were completely blown away getting mobile trailers and refurbishing them, I saw that they were doing more business after the tornado than before,” Steele said. “I knew the spirits of our downtown business merchants were bent but not broken.”

When the tornado hit, it left only the Cedar County Courthouse relatively untouched downtown — the previous courthouse had been burned when 3,000 Confederate soldiers marched through town in 1863. Until the city came to a decision on zoning and building material requirements, no one downtown could rebuild. FEMA drafted a recovery plan for the city, outlining exactly how Stockton should rebuild. The only other times in FEMA history that such a plan for long-term recovery was prepared was the hurricane-induced flooding in Princeville, N.C., in 1999, the wildfires of New Mexico in 2000 and the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

Fred May, who had worked in nearby Springfield for 20 years as director of planning and development for the city, was called in as FEMA’s long-term recovery manager. According to the talk of the town, there was no one better for the job. May, who will officially take his position full-time at the beginning of October, said Stockton could be even stronger than it was on May 4, 2003.

“This community has an opportunity to be an even better community,” May said. “Better because of the sense of community that has become obvious, and better because everybody wants to pitch in and get things back to normal.”

May, the money man, focuses primarily on squeezing every available penny for Stockton. The first round of grant applications that May completed Aug. 15 yielded Stockton close to $300,000. In such devastating natural disasters, FEMA pays 75 percent of recovery costs, leaving the city to pay 15 percent and the state the remaining 10 percent. That $300,000 grant goes toward the city’s 15 percent. He is looking at other sources, such as the Department of Economic Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to provide for other needs.

“It’s important to have buildings coming up,” May said. “People need to see something coming out of the ground, something that the community can rally around.”

More than just the improved landscapes and sidewalks, advanced sewer systems and building models, May refers to a proposed community center that will cost a little under $2 million. Equipped with a new library, activities for all ages, and a link to the city park, the community center is anticipated to be the cornerstone of the new and improved town square.

“The feeling of helplessness is gone,” Sue said.

By mid-August, Sue joked at how many shades of beige she looked at, a bit annoyed but genuinely happy that she even had walls to paint. The Stockton Tigers practiced on the high school’s football field, oblivious to the hammers and drills working to meet a deadline of Aug. 18, the first day of school. Thin red, white and blue stickers that read “Stockton: Recover. Rebuild. Rejoice.” popped up on bumpers, doors and windows. So did people who wore red T-shirts with “Triumph over Tragedy: 5-4-03.”

Like New Yorkers after Sept. 11, the people of Stockton discovered the importance of the little things in life. “I love you” could be heard more often.

And though people are smiling, they know things will never be the same. Rebuilding a house doesn’t make it home. A gray cloud in the sky means much more than a chance of rain; to the people of Stockton, it means a chance of total destruction. The tornado tore through their homes and shred through their hearts, and that is something they will stay with them forever.

Beginning Wednesday, Stockton will celebrate its 43rd Annual Black Walnut Festival. Stockton residents have cleared out the park and called in the people to come and experience the horse carriages, the pedal-tractor pulls and the black walnut ice cream.

More than ever, Stockton’s people are determined to show the world and themselves that the tornado did not kill their spirits. It is said that it takes 10 years to recover from a tornado, but the people of Stockton will argue that the person who said that never lived through one.

They have. And they will never forget.

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