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Rare winter twisters turn deadly

Small Arkansas town decimated as responders also help survivors in MO and IL

BY JOHN PAPE | ST LOUIS, MO | January 1, 2011

A rare New Year’s Eve tornado outbreak, spawned by unusually warm and moist air, killed six as it tore a wide path across parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Three died when a tornado all but destroyed the northeast Arkansas village of Cincinnati, about three miles from the Oklahoma border.

Three more were killed in rural south central Missouri as the storm system tracked to the northeast on a steady march toward the St. Louis area and then on into Illinois.

The storm first hit tiny Cincinnati, population less than 100, shortly after 6 a.m. It destroyed virtually all of the hamlet’s homes, businesses and local fire station.

Three elderly residents died, two in a home and one in a barn. Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder reported Gerald “Buck” Wilson, 88, and his wife Mamie, 78, died when the tornado demolished their home. Dairy farmer Dick Murray, 78, died as he was milking cows in a nearby barn.

Helder said another person was pulled from beneath a pile of rubble near the Wilson home and transported to a local hospital. The name of that person was not immediately available.

Emergency assistance to storm survivors in Cincinnati was delayed because the local fire station was among the buildings destroyed, leaving fire trucks and equipment buried beneath the debris. The entire community was all but obliterated, with nothing but unrecognizable piles of debris marking the decimated hamlet.

“There’s just about nothing left of Cincinnati; it was all but wiped off the map,” Helder said. “There’s debris everywhere, even wrapped around trees. One fellow even said he was carried up in the air by the storm.”

That man, Cincinnati resident Chris Sisemore, told the Associated Press he “was like Superman for a while.”

“It sucked me out of my house and carried me across the road and dropped me,” Sisemore said. “You’re just free-floating through the air; trees knocking you down and smacking you down.”

Despite his ordeal, Sisemore sustained only minor injuries.

The strength of the storm was evidenced by a sign torn from a building in Cincinnati that landed in Bentonville, more than 35 miles away.

An emergency shelter was opened at the local United Methodist Church, located on Hwy. 59 just south of the devastated area. The church was providing temporary shelter and meals to those left homeless by the storm.

Pastor Andy Newbill said virtually everybody in the small, close-knit community had sustained losses in the storm.

“Everyone is pulling together as best they can. Many of them lost everything; everybody lost something,” Newbill said. “Right now everybody’s hurting, but God has a plan for us and He will help us get through this.”

In addition to the three fatalities, the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management reported eight additional injuries in the county that required hospitalization. In addition to Washington County where Cincinnati is located, three other counties also reported significant storm damage.

In Benton County, where the Wal-Mart corporate headquarters is located, emergency management personnel reported five injuries and damage to 13 homes and five businesses.

Benton County Emergency Management Manager Matt Garrity said two homes, two barns, two chicken houses and mobile home were damaged near the town of Siloam Springs. In addition, two horses were killed.

Along State Hwy. 244, two homes, two chicken houses and one shop building were destroyed, as well as a home and a pair of outbuildings on Robinson Road.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport near Bentonville suspended operations for several hours so debris could be removed from the runway and taxiways.

Airport manager Kelly Johnson said the facility itself did not sustain significant damage, but the storm dropped debris from other areas onto the airport’s operational areas.

“We did not have any damage to the airport, but damage to other people’s property ended up on the runway out here,” Johnson said. “It took us a good while to remove the debris and make certain there were no hazards to aircraft.”

In Fulton County, on the Missouri Border, no injuries were reported; however, there were reports of damage to homes and to the Jim Hinkle Fish Hatchery on the Spring River near Mammoth Spring.

Madison County emergency management personnel reported two unoccupied mobile homes damaged and trees down near the community of Clifty. No injuries were reported.

Tornadoes again touched down as the storm system moved through south central Missouri, taking three more lives.

Megan Ross, 21, and her grandmother Loretta Anderson, 64, both died when a tornado struck their farm in rural Lacoma. Dent County Emergency Management Coordinator Brad Nash said the two women died when a twister tore through a family compound consisting of two frame houses and three mobile homes.

Dent said rescuers found debris from one of the mobile homes more than a mile from where it originally stood, and a refrigerator more than 200 yards away.

“One of the (mobile home) frames was 15 feet up in a tree. All the frames were twisted up,” Dent said.

A woman and a child in another one of the trailers at the farm were able to escape and were unharmed.

In nearby Rolla, just north of Lacoma, 69-year-old Alice Cox died when a tornado destroyed the home she was staying in.

Emergency management officials were not immediately certain if the deaths were the result of the same tornado or two different twisters.

At the Fort Leonard Wood military base, about 35 miles southwest of Rolla, a dozen homes in an officer housing area were destroyed when what based officials estimated as an EF-3 tornado touched down around 9:30 a.m. Several additional World War II-era homes that are part of a base museum complex were damaged.

General David Phillips said only minor injuries were reported on base, mostly because many base personnel were away visiting relatives for the holidays.

“This is a time when a lot of people go home to be with their loved ones and take leave, so I think in many ways we were fortunate. Because so many people were visiting family at this time, a lot of our quarters were vacant,” Phillips said. “We’ve only had a couple of minor injuries so far.”

Phillips also said he was “optimistic” the clean-up will be completed quickly and base operations will soon return to normal. Families that lost their homes are being housed in other base housing or off-base.

Just before noon, the storm system hit the St. Louis area, spawning an EF-3 tornado that tore through the suburban community of Sunset Hills, heavily damaging an area roughly equivalent to a city block.

The twister leveled at least 20 homes and businesses, as well as toppling vehicles and knocking down utility poles, according to Mayor Bill Nolan.

Despite the extensive damage, only four people reported minor injuries. That, Nolan said, was a miracle.

“It’s a miracle; we call it the New Year’s miracle,” Nolan said. “It’s hard to believe a tornado hit Sunset Hills, but it did.”

Nolan said the hardest hit area was along Lindberg, a primarily commercial street, and on the south side of Court Street, a predominantly residential area.

“The property damage can be fixed. As long as people haven’t been seriously hurt or killed, that’s the most we can ask out of a situation like this,” he said.

The Red Cross opened a shelter in the Sunset Hills Community Center, just a short distance from the most heavily-damaged part of the city. Displaced residents were being temporarily sheltered in the center while Red Cross officials arranged for housing at area hotels.

In nearby Fenton, the rectory of the St. Paul Catholic Church lost its roof when a tornado moved through that suburban community. Father Mike Dieckmann, a trained weather spotter, was standing outside of the rectory planning to provide a report to the weather service when he said he “heard that classic freight train noise” and knew it was time to take shelter.

“It got louder and louder and I decided this was not the place to be. I yelled at Father Holbrook, ‘Let’s get to the basement; get there now,’” Dieckmann said. “We were about two steps away from the basement when the winds hit. (There was) a loud bang, the house kind of imploded a little bit, our ears popped and it was over. We came upstairs and we had an open-air rectory.”

The actual church sustained only minor damage and would be ready for its regular schedule of worship services. The church school would remain closed on Monday for clean-up, but will be open for classes to resume on Tuesday, Dieckmann said.

Even as the storms were still moving through Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency.

“The state of Missouri is ready to provide whatever resources are necessary to help with rescue, recovery and public safety operations in the wake of these deadly storms,” Nixon said. “As cold weather settles over Missouri later today, a quick and coordinated response is vital to protect lives and property. By working together, we will ensure that our emergency responders have the tools they need to keep Missourians safe and to help families start to recover.”

The governor also urged any Missourians needing emergency shelter to call the state’s “211” assistance line.

By early afternoon, winds generated by the storm system damaged or destroyed nearly two dozen homes in central Illinois. Most of the damage was to homes around a lake near Petersburg, a community of about 2,200 people northwest of Springfield.

Officials at the National Weather Service were not able to immediately confirm whether the damage came from straight-line winds or a tornado, although tornado sirens were sounded as the storms moved though.

Two of the houses were heavily damaged and likely a total loss. A Red Cross shelter was opened at Porta High School for those whose homes were left uninhabitable by the storm.

There was also damage to boat docks around the lake, as well as to a building at a local golf course.

Menard County Sheriff Chuck Jones said one woman was hospitalized when a tree fell onto her car. The woman, whose name was not released, was hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries.

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