The same storm that produced tornadoes in Harrisburg, Illinois and Branson, Missouri also struck rural Stoddard County, Missouri. The National Weather Service confirmed the level EF - 03 tornado left a 21 mile stretch of destruction from Puxico to Bell City. As KRCU’s Jacob McCleland reports, residents are now sorting through the wreckage … and beginning to put their lives back together.
Charlotte Harty picks through what left of her mother’s trailer. There’s an old table, splintered into a thousand pieces. A weed eater sits bent on the soggy grass. A piece of aluminum siding hangs suspended 20 feet above the ground in a tree. But Harty is looking for something smaller: “Clothes. Pictures. You know, things with meaning. But, you know everything is pretty much destroyed. So it’s really hard.”
Harty’s mother was severely injured in Wednesday morning’s tornado that ripped her trailer off its foundation and flung it 100 yards away. The trailer, now unrecognizable for what it once was, is a mangled mess of glass, wood, and metal. It sits in a nearby field. The tornado killed Harty’s step-father. Her mother is in a Cape Girardeau hospital, recovering from her injuries. Now, Charlotte Harty is looking for any fragment of a normal life for her mother to come home to. "She needs everything. She has nothing, you know. She lost everything she had, her best friend, her animals.” A chocolate lab, a chihuahua, two cats, six goats. None of them survived the storm.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in Stoddard County before, except, you know, when I was a very, very young child.” That’s Stoddard County Sheriff Carl Hefner. Trailers, barns, and combines stood little chance against the EF-03’s winds that topped out at 140 miles per hour. Giant trees were uprooted, splintered, or busted in half. Luckily, Hefner says, the storm narrowly missed the small town of Puxico, only four or five miles away: “Considering the damage that was done, you know, we’re very fortunate that we came out like this. Of course there’s a lot of people that it’s going to take years for them to get their lives back together.”
Normally, this patch of Stoddard County would be noteworthy for its rolling hills, forests, and nearby wetlands. But now, it’s littered with the remnants of the Leap Day storm. Hefner: “This is a rural area and you know, it’s just widespread. This is all farming community. You know, you’ll have a house here and a mile down the road you’ll have another house. You can look around and just see how it is, you know. It’s not like, it wasn’t Branson where it just, you know went, in a commercial area.”
The storm produced tornadoes across southern Missouri, starting at the Kansas border and tearing a path across the state to Oak Ridge, near the Mississippi River. From there, the storm continued its fury, producing the powerful tornado that killed six people and injured many more in Harrisburg, Illinois.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon surveyed the damage on Thursday, meeting with Charlotte Harty and law enforcement officials. He says the loss of life would have been greater without well-trained emergency responders and educators: “But the breadth of these storms. It’s not the only time we’ve seen this, where storms come off the plains and move very quickly through the Southwest across our state and muster up into very strong and then weak and strong. And so everybody needs to watch that weather and see what’s coming.”
Meanwhile, Charlotte Harty continues her search for her mother’s personal items, venturing far beyond the tattered remains of the trailer: “It’s like two miles that way that things are blown. I’ve walked back there and I find shoes and I find this and I find that. And it’s just so far to carry everything back. It’s just like, you know, what do I do?”
For now, all she can do is recover everything possible … and hunker down before the next line of storms moves through Stoddard County.