Missouri town looks to brighter future

Caruthersville still on mend from 2006 tornado.

BY P.J. HELLER | CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. | May 2, 2007


Tornado caused extensive damage throughout Caruthersville, including at town airport, which is being rebuilt.

Boys and Girls Club heavily damaged by tornado is being razed, to be replaced with low-income rental housing.

When residents celebrate this Mississippi River town's 150th birthday in early May, they will not only be commemorating the past but looking to what they hope will be a brighter future.

That future is being helped along by the steady stream of volunteers who continue to pour into the Missouri Bootheel town to aid in recovery efforts from an April 2, 2006 tornado which destroyed about half of the town of 6,000 people.

"We've come a long ways," said Dwight Chapman, pastor of the Eastwood Memorial United Methodist Church.

But, he added, "We've got a good ways to go."

"I'm quite amazed at how much the town has recovered," said the Rev. Kirwin Stewart of the First Presbyterian Church.

Kirwin said both faith-based groups and community organizations have been pulling together to help the community recover from the storm.

"You expect that cooperation in the weeks after the tornado," he said. "But when you're talking three months out, six months out, nine months out when people are tired and they're trying to get their own houses fixed up, they're doing their own battles with their insurance companies we can still see that spirit of cooperation in regards to helping the poor of our community."

Chapman, chairman of the Long-Term Recovery Committee, said materials, labor and funding were still badly needed as the town in Pemiscot County one of the poorest areas in the state continues to rebuild. He estimated that 80 percent of the more than 300 homes destroyed in the town were uninsured. Another 500-plus homes were damaged.

Some 90 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are providing temporary shelter for displaced residents. About three dozen trailers remain in a single location in the town, down from approximately 100 trailers in the mobile home park. Another 60 trailers are scattered across the city and county on private land. The trailers house anywhere from one to six people.

While the recovery is expected to go on for several more years, Brian Wilson, the city's disaster recovery manager, said the goal was to get people out of the trailers and into housing by October, when FEMA was expected to take back the units. Renters who were living in the trailers were facing an especially difficult time finding permanent housing due to a severe shortage of rental units.

"Rental property is almost non-existent so those who are renters now in FEMA trailers are a big issue," Chapman said, adding it was unclear what provisions FEMA and the town might make when the October removal deadline occurs. "If there's no rental property available or none available in near future, we're not sure what takes place at that point in time."

In the meantime, volunteers from faith-based organizations have been busy building and repairing homes. Mennonite groups from both in-state and out-of-state have already built 20 new homes, have six more under construction and have repaired three dozen others, Chapman said.

Volunteer and mission teams from United Methodist churches have come to town on a weekly basis. Teams from the United Church of Christ and Baptists are among those also lending a hand in the recovery. Presbyterian Disaster Response provided funding to hire people to coordinator work teams and assign them jobs.

"They're doing good work," Wilson said, noting that all work requires a permit and is subject to inspection by a recently employed building inspector.

"We had problems initially when every fly-by-night contractor was doing work and some of it was not very good," Wilson said. "It was very shoddy work."

The volunteers have been warmly welcomed by the community.

"People have come from all over the United States to help us," said Jeanne Cagle, coordinator of ministries at Eastwood Memorial United Methodist. "We have been treated so wonderfully."

Cagle said some groups recently sent an 18-wheel tractor-trailer filled with food to be distributed by the school district. Students at the local high school have been forced to attend classes in temporary portable units while officials determine what to do with the tornado-ravaged high school building. Voters have twice voted down bond issues to pay for rebuilding the school.

"It's been a blessing to our community," Chapman said of the volunteers. "We've been truly blessed with all the people who have come and tried to help."

The town was one of several places across the region that were struck by tornadoes on the same day in April 2006. The National Weather Service reported that five F3 tornadoes with winds of 158 to 207 mph — struck April 2 in eastern Arkansas, northwest Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel. It said almost every home in Caruthersville was damaged by the twister.

No deaths or serious injuries occurred in the town, which both Chapman and Stewart credit to the efforts of Fire Chief Charlie Jones, who less than a year earlier got the community listed as "Storm Ready" by the weather service. The designation means the community can communicate quickly with residents about dangerous or severe weather.

Tornado warning whistles are tested every week. The warning system which sounded persistently on April 2 was credited with saving lives and preventing injuries when the tornado struck.

"We have a tornado whistle in our backyard and every Saturday it goes off at noon and you curse the thing," Stewart said. "Never again.

"I'd be lying if I said people weren't still a little jittery every Saturday every time they hear the whistle for a test," he added. "It brings you back to the April 2 day."

Chapman said the destruction in the town received only scant national media attention tornadoes in other areas that day caused multiple fatalities and injuries that garnered more attention so those outside the area were unaware of how extensive the damage was in Caruthersville.

"Once they discovered we had all this damage, they sent people and came to survey the community," he said.

Caruthersville, nestled in the southeastern part of the state, sits along the Mississippi River. The area has double-digit unemployment, according to Chapman. The major employers are shipping-related businesses on the river, a steel mill in nearby Blytheville, Ark., and area farms which grow cotton, rice, corn, beans and wheat.

Wilson said despite the hardships that the twister caused, it also presented the town with opportunities. Substandard housing has been razed, plans are in the works to modernize and consolidate the police and fire departments and a grant for economic development of the downtown area, put on hold by the tornado, was being revived. Park improvements were also planned.

The city also used FEMA funding to demolish the Boys and Girls Club. The site will be developed with low-income rental housing, he said.

"There's a lot of things to do," Wilson said. "It provides opportunities in a lot of ways. As a whole, we should be able to bounce back and bounce back stronger."

Stewart agreed that work being done by city officials would improve the quality of life for everybody in the town. At the same time, he noted that the tornado "completely changed the face of the community," from demolishing buildings to wiping out stately magnolia, oak and other trees.

"Most people say it will never have quite the same feel again, it will never look quite the same," he said. "For a town so deep in nostalgia, that's a bitter pill to swallow."


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