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Mo survivors begin clean-up

Deadly New Year’s Eve tornadoes devastate rural communities

BY JOHN PAPE | ST LOUIS, MO | January 3, 2011

After having parts of their town destroyed by New Year’s Eve tornadoes, the residents of Rolla, Mo., spent the first weekend of 2011 beginning the recovery process.

Rolla, a predominantly rural community of about 18,000 located between St. Louis and Springfield, was among the areas hard hit by a rare outbreak of winter tornadoes triggered by a storm front moving across the nation as the final hours of 2010 ticked away.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm system spawned as many 26 twisters across five states, claiming seven lives.

Four of victims those died in the Rolla area when an EF-3 tornado touched down just before 10 a.m. Among the victims were life-long friends Ethyl Price, 74, and Alice Cox, 69, who died when the twister obliterated Price’s mobile home in north Rolla.

Two other women died in the rural settlement of Lacoma, about 15 miles south of Rolla, when a tornado hit their farm. Megan Ross, 21, and her grandmother Loretta Anderson, 64, were killed when the twister tore through the family compound consisting of two frame houses and three mobile homes.

Rolla Rural Fire District Chief Bruce Southard said 50 75 people were forced out of homes that were either destroyed or seriously damaged by the tornadoes.

Phelps County Emergency Management Director Sandy North said 12 non-life-threatening injuries were reported following the storm, and 40 structures in the community were damaged.

Most of the damaged homes, including the one in which the two women died, were on the north side of the town near Interstate 44. Southard and North both described the area as “absolute devastation” and “like a war zone.”

“A lot of it is unrecognizable as having been homes; the mobile homes were, obviously, the most vulnerable and sustained the heaviest damage, but all of the homes were heavily damaged,” Southard said. “I suspect most of them are complete losses.”

Southard said the mobile home in which the two women died was an example of what happens when a tornado strikes. The home in which Price and Cox died was reduced to piles of debris spread across more than 50 yards on two sides of a road.

“The area that was hit was like a war zone. There was next to nothing that was recognizable,” Southard said. “The only way I could describe it was absolute devastation.”

Jason Stevenson lived just up the hill from where the two women died. He said he was on the phone with his mother when the storm hit. He took shelter as soon as he realized what was happening, leaving his panicked mother on the phone.

“As soon as I shut the door, everything started rumbling underneath me and the whole house imploded on top of me,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said he recalled being “lifted up and down at least three times I know of” before being slammed against a tree in his back yard. Stevenson ended up with a tree branch stuck into his left shoulder and surrounded by debris of what used to be his home.

“My mom told me she was praying for me the whole time,” he said. “I really think God protected me in the middle of all that.”

Ruth Hicks, whose home was also among those destroyed, said she “lost everything.” She was not home when the tornado hit, but returned a short time later to find “nothing left but piles of rubble.”

“Everything is gone. (There) may be a few of my son’s toys that I might be able to salvage, but there’s not much left,” Hicks said. “Everything we had and everything I owned is gone. Even the bathtub ended up in a tree.”

Immediately following the storm, the Red Cross set up a shelter at the First Assembly of God Church in Rolla. Some who lost their homes were provided with housing vouchers for nearby motels, others chose to stay with relatives.

The close-knit community quickly pulled together to help those who lost everything.

Through its Behind the Badge program, the Rolla Police Department established a disaster relief fund to collect donations to assist storm victims. Behind the Badge is a nonprofit organization operated by employees of the Rolla Police Department and their spouses.

Police Chief Mark Kearse said the losses of one family led to others in need.

“A family had been presented to Behind the Badge for immediate assistance due to total loss of their belongings and rental home. After getting the information on this family, we found that there were many others that needed help from this disaster,” Kearse said. “The money collected will help only those tornado victims for such things as food, shelter, and clothing. We will first start with this family and their young boy.”

Dana Renee Sooter, owner of the Sooter Inn located only a short distance from the hardest-hit part of the city, offered rooms at no cost for tornado survivors “until they get back on their feet.”

Rolla resident Sara Benton said the response was typical for the community where “just about everybody knows everybody else.”

“This was just a horrible thing, especially coming during the holidays like it did. One of the saddest things I saw was debris from what was left of a home with Christmas decorations still on it, all wrapped around a tree up on the north end of town,” Benton said. “It’s just tragic; that’s the only way I can describe it tragic.”

Benton said the deaths of the two elderly women hit townspeople especially hard. Her voice broke as she recalled the life-long friends.

“A pair of wonderful ladies, best friends for as long as anyone could remember,” Benton said. “But we’re going to pull together and get through this. God will guide us through.”

Thirty miles to the west, the massive Fort Leonard Wood military base also continued the clean-up after being struck by a different EF-3 tornado triggered by the same storm system that hit Rolla.

Base officials said 30 homes were completely destroyed and some 65 others were damaged. Also seriously damaged were several World War II-era structures that were part of a museum complex.

Only four minor injures were reported on the base.

As clean-up efforts continued, base commander Gen. David Quantock urged patience.

“(We’ve) made a lot of progress, but we still have a long ways to go. Patience is the key as we work through this,” Quantock said.

Military personnel whose homes were destroyed or left uninhabitable were placed in other on-base housing or in temporary shelter off-base.

Victims were also receiving assistance from military support groups, as well as from community organizations.

Operation Homefront was preparing to donate about 10 truckloads of furniture, while the USO had items available including clothing, food, drinking products, diapers, blankets, personal hygiene products, laundry soap, books and children's magazines available for those hit by the storm.

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