Deadly Storms Rip Across American Heartland

PIERCE CITY, Missouri, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - Thirty-eight people are dead and hundreds more are injured after giant, supercell storms and deadly tornadoes swept across eight states on Sunday night. Cold dry air moving from the Rockies collided with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico sending residents of eastern Kansas, and parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Mississippi scrambling for shelter from tornadoes, high winds and giant hailstones.

Today a vast cleanup effort is underway along the 400 miles of the storms' path as tornado warnings and flood watches continue to circulate through the Midwest and South. The National Weather Service is warning those involved in recovery efforts should be prepared for more severe weather. Severe thunderstorms are forecast for southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri, spreading east across the Ozarks this evening. Tornadoes are possible along with very large hail and damaging winds.

In Missouri, at least 18 people died and eight others are missing as a result of the storms, and at least seven people died in Kansas. Today President George W. Bush declared that a major disaster exists in these two states, opening the way for the use of federal disaster funds to help meet the recovery needs of families and businesses.


A tornado looms over a road near Kansas City, Missouri. May 4, 2003. (Photo by Ben Alonzo courtesy National Weather Service)
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who is undersecretary for the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, made the disaster funding announcement in Missouri today following a tour of the damages to the Pierce City area, one of the towns hit hardest by the storms.

"President Bush understands what these storms did to Missouri, and that's why he made federal disaster assistance available so quickly," Brown said. "FEMA will be there to do whatever it takes to help get all those in need back on the road to recovery." The declaration covers damage to private property from severe storms, tornadoes and flooding in 39 Missouri counties.

"There’s virtually nothing here that wasn’t hit by the tornadoes,” said American Red Cross spokesperson Michael Spencer today as he surveyed the damages in Pierce City. The Red Cross estimates that 100 homes were destroyed or badly damaged in the town of 1,400. “It’s going to take weeks for these people to get back on their feet," Spencer said.

A National Guard armory about 35 miles southwest of Springfield, Missouri where some residents had sought shelter was the scene of more than 10 deaths, according to authorities. The building was reportedly leveled by a tornado that was on the ground for half an hour.

"Our citizens and some communities have suffered immense losses," said Missouri Governor Bob Holden. "While I have asked the President for a disaster declaration for 39 counties, as damage information from other counties continues to be compiled it may be necessary to add additional counties to the disaster request."

"Though I have seen the aftermath of tornadoes before, the devastation never ceases to amaze me," said Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius Monday during a visit to stricken Crawford and Wyandotte counties. "My thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones and their homes and I want to do what I can to help."


Tornado force winds blew away houses on one side of a street in Kansas City, Missouri, but left the houses across the street intact. (Photo by Larry Gonnello, Kansas City Fire Dept. courtesy National Weather Service)
In Kansas City, Missouri, people are searching for personal items such as photos and documents that were scattered by the strong winds, and disposing of spoiled food. The Kansas City Fire Department estimates that 20 homes have been severely damaged and 50 have moderate damage.

Brown toured the damaged Kansas City area this morning and promised that FEMA will do all that can be done to make sure that "everyone in need of assistance receives it as fast and efficiently as possible," in the seven counties that have been declared disaster areas.

The tornado was blamed for one death in Kansas City, Kansas, after it passed near the Kansas Speedway at I-70 and I-435, and passed just east of the Woodlands race track. The tornado forced the temporary closure of Kansas City International Airport, where officials evacuated the control tower and guided travelers and others to tunnels for about 30 minutes.

In Tennessee, at least 13 people are dead, and two others are missing. Eleven deaths reported in Madison County, where tornado carved 65 mile path of destruction. To date, Tennessee has not been officially declared a disaster area.

The Red Cross says volunteers from across the nation have been pouring into affected regions in Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee where homes were destroyed, hailstones as large as baseballs inflicted damage to property, and power outages affected homes and businesses.

Local Red Cross chapters are at work around the clock to deliver warm meals, clean water, cleanup supplies and safe refuge to thousands of affected residents.

Counseling is being offered to storm victims traumatized by their losses. ”One of the most important things we are doing right now is providing mental health counseling. Not only have many of these people lost loved one and friends, they’ve lost everything - their homes, businesses and entire communities. Our trained counselors are helping them cope with their huge losses,” said Spencer.

Brown indicated that more counties and additional forms of assistance for the state and local government agencies may be designated later based on the results of further damage assessments. He named Michael Hall of FEMA to coordinate the federal relief effort.

According to the National Weather Service, torrential rains and severe thunderstorms moved eastward through already saturated areas of Tennessee and adjacent areas of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia Tuesday morning, with some locations reporting in excess of four inches of rain.

The American Red Cross is urging all residents in the severe weather’s path to ready themselves now. Weather officials have issued flood watches over the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee and parts of the Carolinas and Alabama.

Meanwhile, a tornado watch was in effect Tuesday morning for parts of western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and northern Alabama.

Courtesy The American Red Cross

Those in potential tornado zones can ready themselves by:

Those in potential flood areas should: