Rural Missouri Magazine
In Harm's Way
Storms lay waste to towns, lives across Missouri

by Jeff Joiner

A day care belonging to Mike and Jodi Breedlove in Stockton was destroyed by a large tornado that struck the town May 4. Because the storm struck on a Sunday evening there were no children or employees at the business when it was hit. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in the town. Photo by Bob McEowen.

Denzil Roberts stands in a field surrounded by large pieces of twisted metal, much of it from a shop and other outbuildings that once stood on his Polk County farm.

Not far away Roberts’ house still stands but is heavily damaged. Roberts and his wife, Donna, survived the passing of a huge tornado hunkered down in a bathroom in the back of the house.

“We were watching (severe weather reports on) TV and I said, ‘Donna, that’s heading right for us!’ ” says Roberts.

They tried to reach a cellar behind their home, but the ferocity of the storm blocked their escape.

“I was afraid to step out. I’ve seen tornados where you get out in them and they pick you up and carry you away. It was over in 15 seconds. You go from having $200,000 worth of buildings to having nothing.”

Hundreds of similar stories, many even more harrowing, have surfaced since that Sunday evening, May 4, when Missouri found itself in the bull’s-eye of a major outbreak of tornados that swept in from Kansas and devastated huge areas of Missouri.

Over the next 10 days storm after storm, including a dozen more tornados, struck Missouri. From Jackson in southeast Missouri to Jefferson City in central and De Soto in eastern Missouri, as well as in Canton in the northeast corner of the state, storms wreaked havoc across 50 counties leaving 19 dead.

A flattened rental truck sits along Highway 5 in Camden County while a Sho-Me Power Electric Co-op truck holds a powerline aloft to allow traffic to pass. Photo by Jim McCarty

And Missouri was not alone. In a record-breaking period, the National Weather Service reported more than 400 tornados nationwide in the first 10 days of May. Storms killed 44 people in five states including those in Missouri. Not only was the number of tornados staggering, but so was the size and intensity of many of the twisters.

“We had two F4 tornados, which is very unusual,” says Mike Hudson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Pleasant Hill. An F4 tornado packs winds of 207 to 260 mph causing devastating damage.

“These types of long tract tornados of a very violent nature are rare events here. In a common year across the entire country we average maybe 20 F4 to F5 category ratings,” says Hudson.

Hudson says a combination of events came together to make the first week and a half of May unusually explosive for super cell thunderstorms and their accompanying tornados. An unusually strong jet stream remained in place over the central United States that steered strong storm systems right into eastern Kansas and Missouri.

“All the elements came together ironically not once or twice, but three times in the course of that time and we had tornados on the 4th (of May), the 8th and the 10th.”

Sunday, May 4 will be long remembered as the day when storm after storm ripped through southwest and western Missouri and struck a large area of metropolitan Kansas City. Tornados made direct hits on the towns of Pierce City and Stockton, nearly wiping both off the map. Gladstone and Liberty suffered extensive damage north of Kansas City. All but one of the state’s 19 fatalities occurred on that first day of the storm outbreaks.

Two days later central and western Missouri were hit by several severe storms with high winds and tornados, which heavily damaged a large part of De Soto in Jefferson County. In Jackson, near Cape Girardeau, flooding damaged the buildings housing the city’s fire and police departments, which had to be abandoned.

On May 8, storms again rolled through western and central Missouri threatening Whiteman Air Force base near Knob Noster where B2 stealth bombers are based. The billion-dollar planes are kept in hangers designed to withstand winds of 120 mph and escaped damage.

A final series of storms and tornados hit northeast Missouri on May 10 causing widespread damage to Canton including Culver-Stockton College that lost a number of buildings including its field house.
All told, the storms have caused more than $400 million in damage, according to the Missouri Department of Insurance.

Taking the brunt of the storms were more than a dozen Missouri electric cooperatives which, all together, lost power to nearly 35,000 members when storms and tornados broke hundreds of power poles and damaged several high voltage transmission lines.

Crawford Electric Cooperative, Bourbon, lost power to more than half its 18,000 members, many of whom were without electricity for nearly a week.

“Two of these big storm cells hit simultaneously on our system and then met before hitting De Soto,” says Crawford General Manager Dan Blesi. “We’ve got a lot of work to do yet on permanent repairs, but we’re just thankful that everyone has service and nobody was hurt.”

Steve Skopec, manager of operations for Southwest Electric Co-op in Bolivar, says he was shocked when he first saw the damage, which stretched 50 miles across the co-op’s system in Polk and Dallas counties.

“Normally tornados come across the country and pick up and set down, but this one stayed on the ground for so long and the width of it was amazing,” says Skopec. “The damage is about three quarters of a mile wide everywhere it went.”

A lineman for Ozark Electric Cooperative works to repair powerlines in the heavily damaged town of Battlefield. Photo by Bob McEowen.

Just to the west, in Cedar County, Sac Osage Electric Cooperative suffered even worse damage and crews had to contend with getting around the devastation in Stockton, the county’s main crossroads community.

“I’ve been here 40 years and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” says Sac Osage General Manager Ben Harper. “I knew it was bad when the boys radioed in that Stockton was gone. I knew then that we were in for a real time.”

In all areas hit by storms, the immediate problem was getting co-op crews into areas with downed power lines. Damage to trees was near total in some areas and often roads and highways were blocked for miles by downed timber. Often electric co-op crews, with the help of locals and the Missouri Department of Transportation, had to cut and bulldoze their way through the mess to reach downed lines.

As in other serious storms that hit Missouri’s electric cooperatives, the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives initiated an emergency response procedure to get crews and equipment from co-ops unaffected by the storms into areas needing help. In all 13 Missouri electric cooperatives provided aid to other co-op systems .

This outbreak of tornadoes reminds Pat Slattery, with the National Weather Service Central Region office in Kansas City, of a similar super outbreak that spawned 147 tornadoes in 13 states in 1974. The big difference, says Slattery, is the 1974 outbreak killed 307 people compared to 42 this May.

“We attribute that to better technology and better communications and being able to get information to people a lot faster,” says Slattery, who adds that Weather Service meteorologists predicted the May 4 tornado outbreak two days earlier and warned the media and emergency planners that something big was coming together.

Slattery also gives credit in Missouri to the partnership between the National Weather Service, the State Emergency Management Agency and Missouri’s electric cooperatives which has placed numerous weather radio transmitters in areas not able to receive weather alerts in the past.

“That partnership played a big role in our getting information out to people a lot faster.”

Little remained of the courthouse square after a tornado devastated Stockton on Sunday, May 4. Photo by Justin Ballard, Cedar County Republican.

Thousands of people in Missouri continue to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces, literally, of their lives. In hard hit Stockton, Charlie Meeks, the editor of the Cedar County Republican, says she’s inspired by the spirit of the people of Stockton who are already beginning to rebuild homes and businesses. Merchants were particularly hard hit in Stockton where every business on the courthouse square was destroyed or severely damaged.

But what has impressed Meeks the most is how people have come together to help each other and how that spirit has remained weeks after the disaster.

“The first thing you saw around you after the tornado was the concern people had for their neighbors,” says Meeks. “The attitude and spirit of the people are just incredible.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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