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Salvaging the Stuff of Memories

There's little else left for the victims of the tornadoes that swept through Midwest, Southern states. More bad weather is due.

May 07, 2003|Lianne Hart and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

STOCKTON, Mo. — They piled the shards of their memories into pickup trucks.

In Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee, victims of a deadly tornado swarm salvaged what they could from crushed homes and crumpled stores on Tuesday -- all the while keeping a wary eye on the sky, as meteorologists warned of more ferocious winds to come.

Nadine Cooper, rummaging through rubble that was once her home, found her high-school graduation photo from 1939. She found her dining room chairs. A green enamel watering can caught her eye. "That cost me $15 and I will not leave it here," she declared, picking over the debris to retrieve it.

Cooper, 81, grew up in this small town (population 1,600) in the rolling farmland of southwest Missouri. The tornadoes that smashed through the Midwest over the weekend knocked the roof off her white-frame house and punched in the walls. She hid from the roaring storm in the bathtub, couch pillows pulled tight over her head.

The tub and the pillows were still there Tuesday. The rest of the house was in pieces.

In aqua slacks and a print blouse, Cooper wandered from room to room on a lonely scavenger hunt. Every object she spotted triggered memories. She pulled out a ballet dancer mounted on a wooden plaque. "I bought this in Kansas City in 1949," she said. She saw a birdhouse hanging from a pear tree out front. "I'm not leaving without that, either."

A neighbor drove by: "Hi, Sugar," he called. "You got your belongings out?"

"I might could use some help here," answered Cooper, who will stay with relatives temporarily. He promised to return soon. She kept digging.

Her neighbors were doing the same. "Yesterday, I was sobbing all day. Today, I just decided to adjust the best I can. What else can you do?" asked Jodi Breedlove, 30. The day-care center she runs, Little Jungle Preschool, looked like a pile of kindling.

More than 100 tornadoes touched down in eastern Kansas, southwest Missouri and western Tennessee on Sunday and Monday. Several were believed to measure F3 or even F4 on the Fujita scale, meaning they packed winds of more than 157 mph.

The storms killed at least 36 people in three states, including a 2-year-old girl whose body was discovered near Pierce City, Mo., late Tuesday. Another four people died Tuesday in flood-related traffic accidents in Tennessee after days of rain from the same weather system that produced the twisters.

Insurance adjustors fanned out across the tornadoes' paths have only begun to tally the damage to thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses and dozens of community assets. In Jackson, Tenn., a brick church built in 1832 was demolished. Other towns lost fire stations, post offices, community halls.

Here in Stockton, the furious winds shattered nearly every headstone and pitched huge trees on their sides at a century-old cemetery. Three residents were killed. Few buildings were spared.

The Dollar Store downtown is now just a huge heap of metal and yellow fluffs of insulation. The hoods were blown off most every car in the Deals on Wheels lot. The tornadoes wrapped one mobile home around a tree and tossed a camper van into a neighbor's front door. Councilwoman Patty Thomas estimates 35 businesses were destroyed and more than half the town's 400 homes were damaged

"I've lived here all my life, but I don't feel I'm at home any more. Stockton isn't Stockton. It's gone," said Bobby Drake, 66, who has owned the town's barbershop since 1961. He was unscrewing his red-and-white barbershop pole to toss in his pickup along with two chairs and a few other items he had salvaged.

The whole town seemed to vibrate with the thrum of chain saws cutting up fallen trees. Dump trucks loaded with debris creaked over roads still strewn with wreckage. The noise was disorienting. The view, sickening.

"I can't believe what I'm seeing," Drake said. "Everything is gone."

The worst may not be over.

Meteorologists warned that more tornadoes could hit Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas today and through the rest of the week. Even if the funnel clouds hold off, the forecast still calls for severe thunderstorms, hail and dangerous winds.

"The same conditions [that spawned the twisters] are still lurking around. There's a lot of moisture and instability," said David Imy, a meteorologist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

Added Patrick Slattery, of the National Weather Service: "They're not out of the woods yet, by any means."

Skies were clear throughout much of the day in southwest Missouri. But residents were not taking any chances.

"We've got a rainstorm coming in and if we don't get everything we have today, it will all be gone," said Renae Blevins, 55, who was frantically moving clothes, chairs and a miraculously intact mirror from the wreckage of her wood-frame home in Stockton.

She and her husband, Gene, survived by crouching in a closet with their dog. "You could feel the house trying to lift up from the ground. It was screeching and twisting," Blevins said. "I still can't sleep. I'm afraid."

About 50 miles south, in Pierce City, Mo., former Mayor Carol Hirsch was relieved to have tracked down all but one of the eight residents who had been thought missing. Most had taken refuge out of town. That was about the only good news as inspectors determined that some of the few buildings still standing were unsafe. Most of the historic structures had already collapsed.

"It's pretty hard to take," Hirsch said. "But what can you do? It's our town. It's our home. We have to go on."

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