Tornadoes Rake Missouri, Leaving a Trail of Death and Debris – The New York Times


A tornado hit Jefferson City, Mo., late Wednesday. The storm destroyed buildings and led to at least 20 injuries.CreditCreditKTVI-TV, via Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A series of powerful tornadoes whipped across the Midwest late Wednesday, killing at least three people in southwestern Missouri and destroying buildings and homes in that state’s capital, Jefferson City.

About 25 people were believed to be injured in Jefferson City, where roofs were ripped from buildings and cars were scattered along debris-filled roads. Emergency officials were going door-to-door searching for survivors.

Officials said that roughly three square miles of Jefferson City had been especially hard hit, and that flying trees and debris were responsible for some of the injuries.

Jay Banwell, a retired officer with the Army National Guard, said he awoke to alerts on his phone and the sound of whipping wind. When he rolled out of bed to look outside, the glass in his bedroom window “burst with an awful sound,” and the wind sucked his bedroom door closed.

“I was basically in a room of swirling glass,” he said.

In all, the National Weather Service said it was investigating 34 reports of tornadoes across Oklahoma and Missouri on Wednesday, spawned as severe storms moved northeast from Texas along a virtually straight diagonal line into western Illinois.

On Thursday afternoon, as the storm system moved east, the service issued a tornado warning for the Washington area, including suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, advising residents to stay inside and away from windows.

Severe thunderstorms were forecast across the Mid-Atlantic States on Thursday afternoon and evening, in a line from Charlottesville, Va., through Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City.

Locations of Tornadoes Reported Wednesday

Source: National Weather Service

By The New York Times

At least three people were killed by a tornado in Golden City, Mo., which is about a two-hour drive southeast of the Kansas City area.

The victims included Kenneth G. Harris, 86, and Opal P. Harris, 83, who were found 200 yards from their home, according to Sgt. John Lueckenhoff, a spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The wood-frame home was “completely demolished,” he said. It was unclear whether the couple were inside when the tornado struck or had attempted to flee as it approached.

Linda Brunner, who lives in the area, said she went past the Harris’s home as she drove through town to see if she could help anyone with cleanup. The house “must have taken a direct hit,” she said. “There’s nothing left.”

The body of the third victim, Betty Berg, 56, was found partially under her mobile home, which was “tore up and rolled over,” Sergeant Lueckenhoff said. Ms. Berg’s husband, Mark, also 56, was seriously injured and taken to the hospital, he added.

“We are very thankful we didn’t have any more fatalities than we did,” Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri said Thursday. “But three is too many.”

[What to do if a tornado threatens your area.]

In addition to Jefferson City and Golden City, the governor’s office said the hardest-hit areas appeared to be Carl Junction and Eldon.

Jane Goade of Carl Junction took refuge in a storm shelter under her house with her family and neighbors as they sensed a tornado approaching. “All of our ears started to explode, and you could hear the house just popping,” she said.

Golden City and Carl Junction are in the southwest corner of the state, near Joplin. The storms on Wednesday hit on the eighth anniversary of a tornado that killed 161 people in Joplin, one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in American history.

Read our coverage of the Joplin tornado from 2011

Apartments in Jefferson City were damaged by a tornado Wednesday night.CreditWhitney Curtis for The New York Times

Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, said “scores of houses and buildings have been extensively damaged.”

The State Capitol building and the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City escaped unscathed, but the roof of a Department of Labor building was badly damaged, law enforcement officials said. The site of the former Missouri State Penitentiary, which is now a tourist attraction near the capitol building, also suffered significant damage.

At Lincoln University, a historically black college in Jefferson City, the storm tore the roof off the president’s residence — with the president inside. She escaped serious injury.

The storm also touched down on a cluster of car dealerships along a highway outside town, seriously damaging nearly all of the 500 cars on the lot, said Jay Schnieders, a general manager at the Riley Auto Group.

“Our cars, they are just smashed and twisted and on top of each other,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On Thursday afternoon, Mayor Carrie Tergin of Jefferson City issued a curfew for the hardest-hit areas of the state capital, from 9 p.m. Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday.


Diane Kruger-Sargent comforted her twin daughters McKenzie, left, and JaiDyn as they took shelter on the first floor of a hotel in Jefferson City on Wednesday night.CreditWhitney Curtis for The New York Times

Officials warned that levees could be overtopped, and flooding was possible in Jefferson City on Thursday as floodwaters moved down the Missouri River. Many parts of the Midwest have sustained extensive flooding this spring, and more rain is predicted.

“Everything here is already saturated,” said Chris Franks, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo. “We can’t take a lot more rainfall, and the forecast calls for a lot more rain early into next week.”

“A lot of people are focusing on the tornadoes right now,” said Patrick Marsh, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center. “And I don’t want to take away from the threat that they pose, but I think what is going to become the big story across the central part of the United States is the incredible flooding that we’re going to see.”

That floodwater, beyond being an independent risk, may also make it harder for people to seek shelter from tornadoes.

“A lot of these basements and storm shelters are going to start flooding out,” Dr. Marsh said. “And so you might need to think about an alternative place to seek shelter, should one of your primary below ground shelters become flooded.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Tergin had canceled the Jefferson City air show planned for Memorial Day weekend because the regional airport was forecast to be under six feet of water. On Thursday, she canceled the state track meet scheduled at the public high school because a tornado had blown off the roof of the press box.

“With all that’s been going on with this tornado, I haven’t even checked on the flood,” Ms. Tergin said late Thursday afternoon. “We just keep canceling things.”

Tornado sirens went off in Jefferson City after 11 p.m. on Wednesday. “Violent tornado confirmed — shelter now!” the National Weather Service office in St. Louis warned the city’s 40,000 residents.

Jessica Brown, a state government employee, grabbed her 12-year-old daughter, Angaleah, and fled to the basement, barely escaping the shards of glass that flew through her living room after the windows exploded.

For days, she had been worried about the swollen Missouri River, which snakes through the city only blocks from her house.

“All we could think was flooding, flooding, flooding,” she said. “Then the sirens go, and it’s, ‘Get to your basement. The whole neighborhood’s destroyed.’”

Not long after the storm had roared through town, parts of the capital were cloaked in darkness, with the only illumination coming from police lights and cellphones.

Wayne Weldon, who is 75 and a double amputee, rode out the storm at home. When it was over, there was a hole in the roof in his guest bedroom, not far from where he took shelter. “I could see the sky,” he said.

Sharp-eyed observers noted that the storm that hit Jefferson City lacked the familiar ropy vortex shape associated with tornadoes. Instead, the tornado was a thick wide band, a shape that informal tornado watchers call a “wedge tornado.”

The shape, according to Michael Tippett, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, suggests that the tornado was likely a large one. The tornadoes “that caused the most damage and are the most dangerous are the ones which are large and long-lived, and they have a long track,” Dr. Tippett said. These storms can last for tens of miles instead of hundreds of yards.

Meteorologists also said they could detect by radar that debris had lofted to nearly 14,000 feet.

“That sort of signature happens when we get bad tornadoes,’’ said Mr. Franks, the National Weather Service meteorologist. “These types of tornadoes are pretty rare.’’

Two barges broke free Wednesday night on the flooded Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, prompting officials to issue an urgent evacuation warning. They struck a dam on Thursday around noon but appeared to cause no major damage.

For hours, the loose barges caused a slow-motion panic in the small town of Webbers Falls. The authorities closed bridges, and town officials posted an urgent message Wednesday night on Facebook: “Evacuate Webbers Falls immediately. The barges are loose and has the potential to hit the lock and dam 16. if the dam breaks it will be catastrophic!! Leave now!!”

The unmanned cargo vessels, which together weigh nearly 4,000 tons, rushed down the Arkansas River toward the town, getting caught for a time on some rocks in the middle of the river before breaking free.

They disconnected after slamming into the dam’s giant concrete gates with a loud crash, and one quickly sunk as the other crumpled, its debris forming a wedge between the gates. The collision was broadcast live by local news helicopters. The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety said on Twitter that there did not appear to be any damage to the dam.

Tornadoes and widespread flooding struck Oklahoma earlier in the week, and officials were preparing for another round of severe weather on Thursday and Friday.

Officials said two people died in floodwaters: A woman in the town of Perkins drowned when she drove around warning signs on a flooded road, and another person drowned in a vehicle in floodwaters in Lincoln County.

“Really, it’s just widespread damage across our entire state,” Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma told reporters Wednesday after taking a helicopter tour of hard-hit communities, adding, “The frightening part is we’ve got more, more rain and more storms on the forecast.”

State emergency management officials said there were five confirmed tornadoes in Oklahoma on Monday and six on Tuesday. Scattered tornadoes were also reported Wednesday night.

Climate change is increasingly linked to many forms of extreme weather. One analysis of extreme weather data found that human-caused climate change was a “significant driver” of 21 out of 27 extreme weather events, including droughts, floods and heat waves.

But tornadoes are different. Limited historical information, especially when compared with temperature data that goes back more than a century, makes it hard for researchers to determine whether the number of tornadoes is increasing, or if it’s just a matter of better reporting.

But a 2016 study in the journal Science found that tornado outbreaks, or tornadoes that occur in a bunch within the same weather system, were becoming more frequent.

  • Take cover, preferably in a basement or in an interior room without windows.

  • If you are driving and cannot reach a sturdy building, try to find shelter in a low-lying area.

  • Cover your head. Television forecasters often recommend bicycle helmets.

  • If there is damage after a storm, try to wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Avoid downed power lines.

Julie Bosman reported from Jefferson City; John Hacker reported from Carthage, Mo.; and Timothy Williams from New York. Reporting was contributed by Sarah Mervosh, Amy Harmon and Kendra Pierre-Louis from New York, Manny Fernandez from Houston, Alan Blinder from Atlanta, and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong.