Missouri Tornadoes: Rain, Floods and ‘Then the Sirens Go’
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — It has been a relentless storm season in the Midwest.
First came flooded farm fields and roads across Nebraska and Iowa. Then the Mississippi River rose and rose, threatening towns along its banks. And on Wednesday night, a series of violent tornadoes tore through the region, ripping apart buildings and darkening whole neighborhoods.
Even then, another threat was looming: rising waters. In Tulsa, Okla., and surrounding suburbs it was a tense evening on Thursday as water levels steadily rose and officials braced for some of the worst flooding in decades along the Arkansas River after the Army Corps of Engineers increased the flow of releases from Keystone Dam.
And officials were warning of swollen waters along the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois Rivers.
All of it was bringing a new level of exhaustion to a region that has found itself fighting multiple crises through a wet and battering spring.
“All we could think was, ‘Flooding, flooding, flooding,’” said Jessica Brown, who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital, where a wide, dense tornado barreled through on Wednesday, a day when officials had been preparing for flooding from the nearby Missouri River. “Then the sirens go, and it’s ‘Get to your basement,’” she said.
Ms. Brown, a state employee, grabbed her 12-year-old daughter, Angaleah, and fled downstairs, barely escaping the shards of glass that flew through her living room after the windows exploded.
Jefferson City residents surveyed the damage to their homes and neighborhood on Thursday.CreditJacob Moscovitch for The New York Times
“The whole neighborhood’s destroyed,” Ms. Brown said, standing not far from her front porch — the only one that was left on her house by Thursday.
The National Weather Service was investigating 34 reports of tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri on Wednesday as storms moved northeast from Texas along a virtually straight diagonal line into western Illinois. Three people, including a couple in their 80s, were killed in a tornado that struck rural southwestern Missouri, which has been drenched with several bouts of heavy rain and flash flooding in recent weeks. The storms sent debris nearly 14,000 feet into the air in at least one location, radar images showed — a defining feature of a particularly damaging and dangerous tornado.
[What to do when a tornado is near.]
Kenneth G. Harris, 86, and his wife, Opal P. Harris, 83, were found about 200 yards from their home near Golden City, Mo. Their home was completely demolished, and the authorities said they were uncertain whether the couple had been inside when the storm hit or had tried to flee.
Betty Berg, 56, was also killed. Her mobile home had rolled over, state officials said. Ms. Berg’s husband, Mark, was hospitalized with injuries.
The storms’ worst damage occurred in Missouri, near Golden City and Jefferson City. In Jefferson City, wind speeds were estimated to have reached as high as 160 miles per hour. Golden City is not far from Joplin, where one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in American history hit. The storms on Wednesday occurred on the eighth anniversary of that tornado, which killed 161 people.
About 25 people were injured in Jefferson City, a community of 40,000 people where rescue workers on Thursday searched house by house for survivors near felled oak trees, overturned cars and power lines strewn across driveways. The size of the devastation was yet to be fully understood, but it was extensive; roughly three square miles of the city were particularly hard hit. Shelters were opened. A curfew order was issued for part of the city.
Some residents speculated that the timing of the storm may have helped prevent deaths. In Jefferson City, tornado sirens had gone off after 11 p.m., before the storm hit, and by that hour, many people were already at home for the night. Many were in bed.
Jay Banwell, a retired officer with the Army National Guard, said he had woken as wind was whipping at his bedroom window. Then the wind burst through his window pane, slamming his bedroom door shut with such force that he was trapped inside.
“I was basically in a room of swirling glass,” said Mr. Banwell, 56, who was taken by ambulance on Thursday to be treated for a laceration.
[The Missouri tornadoes, in pictures.]
Loise White, 89, was in bed when she heard the screeching sound. Then the glass blew out of her bedroom window.
Her TV toppled off its stand, clothes swirled around her and the wind pelted her with her own books. “It was throwing each one of those books at me just as hard as it could, whamming me,” Ms. White said.
“It was just a really mean wind,” she said. “And rough.”
In the end, her car was crushed by a tree. The upper half of her home was gone. “It’s like you just took a knife and sliced off her second story,” her son, Greg White, said.
As residents across the region began sorting through the rubble, meteorologists were warning of more dangerous conditions ahead. In addition to heavy rain and flood risks, the possibility of tornadoes was expected to last into early next week, as warm air masses from the southeast collide with a cool air mass from the northwest. Tornado-prone storms often form along such intersections, feeding off the variation in the wind direction.
“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.”
On Wednesday, Carrie Tergin, the mayor of Jefferson City, canceled an air show honoring veterans planned for Memorial Day weekend because the regional airport was forecast to be under six feet of water — the result of Missouri River floods that the city has been bracing for all spring.
On Thursday, Ms. Tergin canceled a state track meet at the public high school because the tornado had blown the roof off the press box at the stadium.
“With all that’s been going on with this tornado, I haven’t even checked on the flood,” Ms. Tergin said late on Thursday afternoon. “We just keep canceling things.”
The tornadoes came in a period of extreme weather, which has been linked to climate change.
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 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 is just a matter of better reporting.
A 2016 study in the journal Science found that tornado outbreaks, or several tornadoes forming in the same weather system, were becoming more frequent. But despite the recent string this spring, including one in eastern Alabama in March that killed 23 people, this year’s tornado season has been within historical averages, according to Patrick Marsh, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.
[An inside look at the Storm Prediction Center.]
In Jefferson City on Thursday afternoon, cars were turned upside down and tossed around at a cluster of car dealerships. The historic state penitentiary, about a mile from the Capitol, was damaged. And in one hilly neighborhood, streets were covered in shattered glass, splinters of wood, a powder-blue mattress, a fork.
For days before the tornado, Trevor Grant, a 54-year-old hospital aide, had worried about the threat from the Missouri River, just blocks from his pale yellow house. What might it do to the place?
Then came the tornado.
“I don’t know what could be next for us,” Mr. Grant said on Thursday, looking down his street, covered with gutters, roof shingles and chunks of insulation.