MO town cut off after tornado

The Monday following the May 4 tornados, the outside world had little idea what fate had befallen Stockton.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | STOCKTON, Mo. | May 8, 2003



"The tornado sucked the top of the house off and him with it."

—Dean McElroy


The Monday following the May 4 tornados, the outside world had little idea what fate had befallen Stockton.

Media coverage of tornado damage was nearly instantaneous from all the other areas that suffered major damage. But on Monday, no one really seemed to know about this small, remote rural town, other than that all communication was cut off.

That was because the entire town had been virtually destroyed. Three people were killed.

Like Pierce City further south, Stockton took a tremendous hit from the tornado, which reduced the entire downtown to a pile of rubble. On Wednesday, after three days of recovery, Stockton still looked more like a landfill than a town.

One of the dead, John Cassell, was an elderly, wheelchair-bound man, who was not able to follow his wife into their basement. His wife tried to carry him, but he was too heavy for her. She went into the basement alone.

"The tornado sucked the top of the house off and him with it," said Dean McElroy, a parishioner of the Stockton United Methodist Church, which Cassell also attended. "They found him out in the field."

McElroy was one of a dozen or so volunteers who turned out Wednesday to help clean up their church, which incurred major damage from the storm.

The sanctuary will have to be totally rebuilt, but the other parts of the church, like the offices, family center and kitchen, might be salvaged. These portions of the church were built just five years ago.

Then there was all the greenery, now gone.

"We lost every one of our trees," McElroy said. "We had a beautiful line of trees right down through the parking lot. Big maple trees. We don't have a single one left."

A block away, other volunteers sifted through the wreckage. Eric Luff and his 16-year-old son, Billy, drove from their undamaged home a few miles away in order to lend a hand.

"We've helped out all over the place ever since the tornado," Billy said.

Wednesday the Luffs were cleaning up at the home of Mildred Norman, an elderly woman whose garage was blasted to bits, and whose front roof was crushed in by a falling tree.

Norman's daughter, Virginia Harris, was grateful for the Luffs' help.

"They've helped us for the last few days," she said. "They've been really good. We've had a lot of help."

"We have some friends in town that we helped out, and some relatives," Eric Luff said. But he didn't know Norman or Harris. "We're just trying to help these people dig out their garage."

Two major relief centers were set up in town. One center, stationed at the First Southern Baptist of Stockton, served as headquarters for the American Red Cross, and provided sleeping quarters for 40 people and served meals to survivors and workers. The other center was established at the Stockton Assembly of God Church just up the road. Canned food and bottled water, as well as clothing, were distributed from there. Both churches are located on the outskirts of the town, and escaped the destruction that befell four other downtown churches - the United Methodist, the Presbyterian, the Christian Church and the Missionary Baptist.

"People have just really blessed us," said the Rev. Steve Ewing, associate pastor of the First Southern Baptist of Stockton. "Spirits are really high."

The need to use his church as a shelter appeared to be diminishing, as more people found room to stay with friends and relatives, he said.

Ewing pointed out the scope of the disaster on this small town. Since all but six of Stockton's businesses and public buildings were wiped out by the tornado, even people whose homes incurred little damage are suffering their share of hardships.

A bank, a veterinarian's office, a grocery store, a pizza place, a coffee shop and the courthouse. They survived the tornado. Nothing else did, he said. And this is the center of Cedar County - the county seat.

"At least the courthouse is still standing," Ewing said.

Despite the widespread destruction, people at the Stockton Assembly of God were still joking and kidding each other as they handed out food and clothing.

"So, you got a mink coat for me?" said one woman as she pulled up to the church's gym.

The gym, packed full of donated clothes and canned goods, was obviously not going to be free for recreation any time soon. That didn't stop the jokes.

"Hey, we got to play volleyball in here tonight," cracked one man to the pastor.

"Well, it's all yours to move," the pastor kidded back.

The Rev. Randall Hayward, the pastor here, said he has been amazed by the cooperative way that townspeople have responded to the tornado.

"People have really been responding to this. It's just amazing to me how people are coming together," he said. That help has come from volunteers who are putting in 12 to 16 hour days, and also from the Assembly of God national headquarters, which sent in a tractor-trailer load of palletized personal hygiene kits. Then there was a load of T-shirts, illustrated with little horse-drawn buggies, brought in by members of a small Amish community that live just south of Humansville.

Or the toys donated by a seven-year-old boy from town, who put all his toys in a box to share with other kids.

"I thought that was a really neat thing for him to grasp the meaning of that," he said. "It's been real difficult, but it's not as bad as it could have been."

What would have been worse would have been a direct hit on his church, which didn't happen. But it sure didn't look as if that would be the outcome on Sunday night, as the tornado roared toward the church. Hayward was there with about 20 other people that night. The church has no basement.

"I didn't know what to do with them. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We just prayed," he said. "I think we were spared so we could minister to this community."

That's just what they've been doing. Hayward has opened up his church to the whole community, and the United Methodist from downtown will soon be holding services in the church, as well as a memorial service for John Cassell.

"As long as they need a church here, they're welcome with us," he said. "When it comes to stuff like this, this denominational stuff doesn't amount to anything.

In the face of all the work necessary to rebuild, Hayward is convinced his town will make a comeback.

"It's just amazing the amount of work it will take to get this town back to any semblance of order, " he said. "Stockton is a good community, and it will build back. It will never be like it was, but if anyone can bounce back, Stockton will."


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