Joplin Globe
5/3/04 - Homes stood little chance


Virtually no construction could withstand force, severity of May 4 storms

By Wally Kennedy

Globe Staff Writer


If your dwelling was in the path of a tornado on May 4, 2003, chances are it was destroyed or heavily damaged regardless of the type of construction.

The severity of the tornadoes were such that even well-anchored frame houses were torn apart. It did not make much difference whether the house was new or old, mobile or modular.

That's because each of the tornadoes at one time or another produced severe winds of about 200 mph. A wind speed that high is capable of overturning a train and lifting a heavy car off the ground.

Those tornadoes are classified as F3s on the Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale. The scale is a subjective visual interpretation used by the National Weather Service to rate building damage along the path of a tornado.

An F0, with maximum winds of 72 mph, causes light damage. An F5, with maximum winds of 318 mph, causes incredible damage.

One of the May 4 tornadoes, the one that struck Franklin, Kan., was a high-end F4. It had winds that approached 260 mph. Winds that high can transform a car into an airborne missile.

"That's the thing about the weather, it is non-discriminating," said Bill Davis, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service station in Springfield. "It hit everyone the same, and you never know whether you are going to be protected in a structure or not.

"That's why looking at construction is at the top of my list after a tornado has hit. With these tornadoes, anchored homes that appeared to be well built could not withstand the wind."

It's widely known that trailer homes are not a safe place to be in any type of windstorm. They typically do not survive winds of 70 to 100 mph. In Franklin, well-built homes that were not secured or bolted to their cobblestone foundations disappeared.

"People were dying in those structures. They could not withstand some of nature's worst," Davis said. "Yet, down the road two lives were saved in Liberal. A mother and her daughter were in a very well-constructed home with a tornado room in the basement. They survived. Having a safe room in your house is like having an airbag in your car."

Tornado records kept from 1950 to the present by the National Weather Service show that 32 tornadoes have touched down in Jasper County. Seven were F0s; 16 were F1s; six were F2s; and three were F3s. There were no F4s or F5s during that period.

Having three F3s and an F4 on a single day in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas, which is what happened on May 4, is an event that might happen once in a 100 years, Davis said.

The tornadoes that swept across the area on May 4 killed 13 people in Southwest Missouri and six in Southeast Kansas. The tornadoes injured 143 people. According to the National Weather Service, about half the fatalities were in frame houses. The others were in mobile or modular homes. A couple of those who died were outside.

Ten of the victims were women. Eight were men. One was an infant. The average adult was nearly 60 years old. Six of them were 70 and over.

"The age thing tells you that these people may have been living in older homes," Davis said. "And, because they have lived so long and been so accustomed to smaller tornadoes, maybe they were not prepared for an F3."

Davis said older people might need someone, a neighbor or family member, to call them when severe weather is imminent to alert them to the danger.

"A few people were outside when they were killed," he said. "They were probably thinking, 'Something is happening and I have got to take care of something.' Others died because they were putting their life ahead of other people. People died taking care of other people."

The tornadoes destroyed 1,143 dwellings and damaged 2,204 in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas, according to the National Weather Service. The damage estimate was $159 million.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service, said the tornado outbreak produced about 400 tornadoes in the Midwest that week, causing $3.1 billion in damage. It was the most costly tornadic event in U.S. history.

The American Red Cross surveyed the damage after the storms. Here is a breakdown of the damage and where it occurred, according to the Red Cross. Not all counties in Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas with damage are reflected in the survey.

Jasper County: single-family homes destroyed, 67; single-family homes with major damage, 101; single-family homes with minor damage, 331; mobile homes destroyed, 29; mobile homes with major damage, 10; mobile homes with minor damage, 21; multi-family homes destroyed, 1; multi-family homes with minor damage, 10.

Barton County: single-family homes destroyed, 14; single-family homes with major damage, 8; single-family homes with minor damage, 7; mobile homes with major damage, 1; mobile homes with minor damage, 1; multi-family homes destroyed, 1; multi-family homes with minor damage, 2.

Lawrence County: single-family homes destroyed, 184; single-family homes with major damage, 87; single-family homes with minor damage, 207; mobile homes destroyed, 44; mobile homes with major damage, 6; mobile homes with minor damage, 18.

Greene County: single-family homes destroyed, 50; single-family homes with major damage, 58; single-family homes with minor damage, 56; multi-family homes destroyed, 4; multi-family homes with minor damage, 2.

Cedar County: single-family homes destroyed, 185; single-family homes with major damage, 115; single-family homes with minor damage, 407; mobile homes destroyed, 48; mobile homes with major damage, 16; mobile homes with minor damage, 32; multi-family homes destroyed, 6; multi-family dwellings with major damage, 2 and multi-family dwellings with minor damage, 2.

Christian County: single-family homes destroyed, 27; single-family homes with major damage, 14; single-family homes with minor damage, 31.

Cherokee and Crawford counties (in Kansas): 1,024 homes were destroyed or damaged.

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