Tornado hits central UT

BY RACHEL CLARK | MANTI, Utah | September 9, 2002

"Everybody's okay, nobody got hurt."

—Randy Clark

About two-dozen homes were damaged when a tornado spun through central Utah Sunday afternoon.

"Everybody's okay, nobody got hurt," said Randy Clark, a seminary teacher for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Manti. "There wasn't any physical damage to people, but the south end of town is pretty beat up."

Nearby Ephraim and Sterling were also hit by the tornado, which tore up trees, spouted hail and ripped buildings from the ground.

"It looks like a bulldozer went through in some places," Clark said. "There's debris strewn all over the place."

About six homes were destroyed and two-dozen more were damaged by the tornado's winds in Manti -- about 120 miles south of Salt Lake City -- said the Sanpete County sheriff's office. The National Weather Service said preliminary reports indicate the tornado was an F2 on the Fujita scale, which means winds could have blown as fast as 157 mph.

"Half a dozen or so displaced families all have family close so they have somewhere to go," said Lt. Rick Howe. "The sensational thing -- almost a miracle if you will -- is that we had no injuries and no deaths."

Don's Gallery Café owner Ernest Augustus stood outside with his neighbors and watched the storm pass -- in the opposite direction -- a block from his house.

"It was one of those things," he said. "Debris is flying a thousand feet in the air ... it was pretty amazing to witness."

Augustus said the tornado damaged about a fourth of town, and that it spewed quarter-sized hail.

"The thing that was interesting to me was how all of us stood out there and watched," he said. "It only lasted for about three or four minutes; it was not like we had time to settle down and figure out what was happening. It was only a block away from us and it was just so fascinating."

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt was in Manti Monday, touring the area and gauging damage. The city has declared the area a disaster, and once the county and state follow suit, Leavitt is expected to do the same. The sheriff's department initially estimated tornado damage would cost $1 million.

"I'm sure that will go higher today once we get inside of individual homes," Howe said. "Right now we're trying to get ahold of insurance companies and assess damages."

In spite of the destruction, the community is digging in to clean up.

"This is a pretty close-knit town, so everybody jumps in and helps each other," Clark said. "People's spirits are pretty high."

About 40 volunteers helped perform search and rescue Sunday, and provided traffic control and citizen patrols. In addition to local church and community member efforts to respond to the disaster, the American Red Cross was in Manti Monday assessing the community's needs, providing basic emergency services and serving food to volunteers.

"There were trees blocking the roads and driveways, across fences, falling through houses," Howe said. "Volunteers cut up all the trees and hauled them off."

Both Augustus and Lowe said town residents have rallied together to respond to this natural disaster.

"Everybody's just pulled in, and of the houses that were gone and the people who had to find some place to stay ... it's all been taken care of," he said. "Neighbors have taken them in and have taken care of them and have done all those things that have to be done."

Dave Florence, Navada-Utah Field Service Manager for the American Red Cross, said college students from nearby Snow University pitched in with debris removal Sunday night, and that workers from Manti's Mental-Health Center were counseling families Monday.

"The community involvement has been great," Florence said. "Our major focus is getting damage assessment done. We're also feeding emergency-service workers and families."

In two or three days, Florence said, "when reality hits home is when we expect some mental health needs to come up."

To help prepare residents for that reality check, the Red Cross has a few mental health workers already in Manti and is setting up a service center to help with financial needs.

As soon as the last church service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Manti was over Sunday afternoon, church-goers began to help people pick up after the storm. Florence said the Red Cross is also working closely with Latter-Day Saints churches to help the community recover.

"For the most part, as soon as the tornado was over, you could see trees uprooted and trees on people's yards," Clark said. "As soon as church ended here, people got out and started cleaning up other people's yards and loading junk."

The last major tornado to ravage Utah was in August 1999 in Salt Lake City. The tornado killed one man, injured more than a dozen people, tore apart five houses and caused more than $150 million in damages.

Manti's agricultural community has suffered its share of natural disasters. The area has been in a drought for the past five years, and the area's large alfalfa crops have been damaged.

"If you do have water, you can't afford to feed your livestock. Do you sell them at a loss or do you starve them? It's a bad situation," Howe said. "We're such a high-mountainous area that our growing season is very short and cash crops are pretty much impossible. For our little community of about 3,000 residents that's a pretty big hit."

Manti, however, is a community determined not to let this phenomena get the best of them.

"Even though things are bad -- we've had drought, we've had pestilence, cattle prices are low, feed prices are high, and now we've had a tornado -- people are pretty optimistic," Lowe said.

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