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A Swarm of 'Pure Devastation'

At least 38 are killed as dozens of tornadoes roar across Midwestern and Southern states.

May 06, 2003|Lianne Hart and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

PIERCE CITY, Mo. — A deadly mass of tornadoes erupted across the nation's interior, killing at least 38 people in Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee, and forcing emergency officials Monday to cope with the prospect of more injured victims and hundreds left homeless.

Massive dark funnel clouds, some as wide as half a mile, snaked out from a storm system that raged from Sunday night into Monday across much of the Midwest and South. National Weather Service officials warned late Monday of a "high risk" that thunderstorm cells could spawn new tornado activity in Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Tornadoes -- In some copies of Section A on May 6, an article misstated the distance between the tornado sites of Pierce City, Mo., and Madison County, Tenn., as 1,400 miles. In fact, the distance is about 300 miles.

More than 83 tornado sightings were reported in the region. The fast-racing funnel clouds nearly obliterated several small towns and trapped people in homes and storm shelters. Cars, telephone poles, tree limbs and horses were flung over the rural landscape.

One gray tornado cloud churned across the hills of southwestern Missouri for more than half an hour Sunday night. When it was done, the tiny towns of Pierce City and Stockton were almost erased, six residents were dead and officials staggered out to an eerily placid dawn to comb for missing residents.

By day's end, search teams found no other casualties, leaving officials to concentrate on aiding scores of families left without homes, water and power.

"It's just pure devastation," said Jack Goodman, a Missouri state legislator who listened from his basement as the roaring tornado descended on Pierce City on Sunday night. "Everything's either leveled or just about leveled."

Pancaked stacks of splintered wood, concrete and steel lined the town's center for blocks.

On Commercial Street, the town's main drag, century-old buildings that had been refurbished into thriving antique and art galleries were gone, reduced to teetering piles of brick. The walls of a supermarket were stoved in, but boxes of detergent sat in neat rows on unbowed shelves.

The scene was much the same several hundred miles away in Madison County, Tenn., where two tornadoes killed 11 people. Several of those victims, officials said, were killed in the town of Jackson, where tornado winds topping 113 mph raked downtown shops and buildings. Two others were killed elsewhere in the state.

"It wiped out a third of the town, I hate to say it," said Edlon Bedene, Madison County's emergency management director. "The trees are like somebody came in and cut them off 10 feet above the ground."

Half of Jackson's 60,000 residents were without power and scores were seeking shelter for the night. "It's real bad," said Jackson Mayor Charles Farmer. "It looks sort of like Baghdad after we finished with it."

Just across the border from Missouri into southeast Kansas, a swarm of thin, coiling tornadoes tore up miles of remote rural landscape, uprooting barns and farmhouses and killing at least seven people, officials and witnesses said.

High winds forced officials at Kansas City International Airport to evacuate the air control tower and terminals for nearly an hour. At least one person died in the city's suburbs, and scores of houses were uprooted.

"The majority of the town of Franklin is gone," said Sandy Horton, sheriff in Crawford County, Kan. "And we lost most of the town of Ringo too."

In many hard-hit communities, survivors said they had plenty of time to get to shelters. Sirens wailed and klaxons droned in towns equipped with early warning systems. Even in isolated farm country, television weather alerts and shouts from worried neighbors led many residents to bolt for their basements and storm cellars up to half an hour before the tornadoes struck.

But despite ample warnings, some still took chances, lingering outside to watch the darkening clouds or racing the storm in their cars, braving hailstones the size of softballs and wind-driven debris.

In Pierce City, a growing southwestern Missouri arts community of 1,400, several residents said the tornado's sudden appearance caught people by surprise in front of a National Guard Armory that is used as a shelter.

Retreating inside, the panicked residents ran into a "bottleneck at the top of the stairs," said Julie Johnson, who had reached safety in the basement.

"Some of them didn't make it," said Johnson, the town's clerk. "It was a mad rush."

Sheriff's deputies and teams of tracker dogs sifted through the wreckage of the armory all day. At least eight people were unaccounted for, said Police Chief Mike Abramovitz, and one body was pulled from the rubble.

"This is my town, and now it's gone," Abramovitz said, choking back tears.

Touring the broken community, Missouri Gov. Bob Holden called the storms -- which killed at least 18 people in his state -- "the most devastating series of tornadoes we've ever had."

As Holden and other governors prepared requests for disaster aid, federal emergency teams fanned out to provide service to stricken towns.

In Little Rock, Ark., President Bush expressed condolences for tornado victims and pledged that federal aid would move quickly.

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