Kansas City Star - May 3, 2004
After the Storm: Small towns tackle big changes
By KEVIN MURPHY
First glance: Three rural Missouri and Kansas communities will be torn
Tuesday between looking forward and looking back as they mark the first anniversary
of tornadoes that devastated their towns.
On Tuesday's first anniversary of devastating tornadoes, three rural Missouri
and Kansas communities will be torn between celebrating and remembering.
In Pierce City and Stockton, Mo., where tornadoes gutted the downtowns, businesses
are coming back. But for good or bad, it is clear that neither community
will ever be the same.
The historic downtown in Pierce City is mostly gone, replaced by metal buildings
and ordinary storefronts.
“It will be a sad time for everyone who lived here before and saw what it
was like,” said Christina Russell, who works at the revived Freda Mae's Tea
Room and Eatery. “But I think the progress that has been made will help.”
In Stockton, the outlook is for a greener, more attractive town square, but
the community shares Pierce City's barren look from a widespread loss of
“That's been a hard part for people — Stockton doesn't look like Stockton,”
said Peggy Kenney, executive director of the local chamber of commerce.
In unincorporated Franklin, Kan., the tornado destroyed the community center
and post office — the only nonresidential buildings in town — and uprooted
neighborhoods where some people had lived for decades. Residents are upbeat
about the future, but some tornado victims dread the anniversary.
“It's going to be a sad day,” said Julia LaSota, 93, of Franklin. The tornado
hit at 5 p.m. as she watched television in her nightgown, destroying her
home of 73 years and leaving her unconscious in a ditch. “Everything will
come back. I was doing good, then everything was gone. Not a thing left,
nothing.” She now lives in a nursing home.
In the three communities, which are within about 50 miles of each other,
the tornadoes demolished more than 200 homes: 60 in Franklin and about 80
each in Pierce City and in Stockton. Even more were damaged.
The twisters also wiped out 43 of 45 businesses in Pierce City and about
one-third of the 120 in Stockton. Five persons died — three in Stockton and
one each in Pierce City and Franklin.
But Tuesday should be about looking ahead, said Norma Bacarisse, who is resuming
her antique business in a Pierce City building the tornado spared.
“It's not a good thing to dwell on anyway,” Bacarisse said. “It's an anniversary.
Some you like, some you don't. You might as well look forward.”
A new look
Scott and Lynette Rector were determined to restore Pierce City's glory.
Using materials from destroyed buildings, they built a striking two-story
brick structure downtown that could almost pass as old.
“Someone had to start somewhere,” Lynnette Rector said. The Rectors operate
Freda Mae's on Commercial Street. They had a similar though smaller business
before the tornado.
The Rectors went to the City Council several times to argue for a code requiring
all new buildings on the main street to have a pleasing, if not identical,
look. They did not get far.
“They said we should just be glad with whoever comes in and with whatever
they give us,” Lynette Rector said. “I said, ‘We need to leave things for
our children.' ”
Just up the street, Mike Heman erected a narrow metal building for Heman
Insurance Agency. Putting up a brick building would be expensive, he said,
but he did create a facade of bricks from old structures.
“You have to make a business decision,” Heman said. “We wanted something
nice without going overboard.”
Mayor Mark Peters said the chamber of commerce made an argument for appearance
standards for downtown businesses.
“I think they took the temperature of the community and correctly gauged
that people thought we'd be lucky to get anything back, much less dictate
what it looked like,” Peters said. “What would be there otherwise? A bare
lot, filling up with weeds.”
One of the obstacles to rebuilding on Commercial Street, the main route through
town, is that it is in the floodplain, Peters said. Under new federal guidelines,
new structures have to be elevated, an expensive undertaking, especially
with brick structures.
Commercial Street is still mainly empty lots. One of them will be occupied
by a new City Hall built to look like an old railroad depot.
Few people expected Pierce City, population 1,385, to recover its identity
as a place to shop for antiques and stroll past historic buildings, said
Lyna Deaton, who runs the Dinner Bell cafe.
“Everyone has come to grips with the fact it's not going to be the same,”
Deaton said. “It's the idea that buildings don't make a town, people do.”
Most of the owners of antique stores and flea markets in Pierce City sold
what merchandise they could salvage and won't go back into business.
Other merchants, such as pharmacist Doug Thompson, did not hesitate to reopen.
At his wife's urging, Thompson's store now has a soda fountain resembling
those of years past.
Thompson said the new store is more roomy, practical and convenient for customers
than the century-old structure destroyed in the tornado.
Other Pierce City businesses back in operation include a tavern in a rustic
wood decor building, a car wash, a convenience store, a hair salon and a
barbershop. Several businesses held grand re-openings Saturday.
“My best hopes have been realized,” Peters said. “We have the core businesses
back that make the town.”
A big boost on the horizon could be the city's leasing of the tornado-damaged
National Guard Armory to house Clark Community Mental Health Center Inc.,
now based in Monett, Mo., six miles away. Clark employs about 70 persons.
While most of Clark's employees would work rather than live in Pierce City,
they would do a lot of business in the community, said Frank Compton, Clark's
Pierce City has received significant help from the Federal Emergency Management
Agency and the Small Business Administration. The emergency agency gave $784,000
to 294 households for disaster assistance. The business administration made
$4 million in loans.
In addition, the emergency agency provided Pierce City with temporary full-time
staff to help plan the community's future; the agency gave the same assistance
to Stockton. Only on four other occasions has the agency provided such aid
A better place?
When they got over crying every time they drove into town and saw how the
tornado had leveled buildings, trees, houses, even cemetery stones, the Beasley
family said enough was enough.
“We all looked at each other and decided we're going to make this bad experience
into a positive one,” Dottie Beasley said. “We decided to rebuild and get
back on track. That was the attitude of most of Stockton.”
And so it was that husband Virgil Beasley became one of the first business
owners to return to the town square in Stockton after the tornado.
Beasley runs a real estate and accounting business in a building that also
is home to the drugstore and local newspaper.
While devastating, the tornado did not deal the same blow to Stockton's commercial
center as it did to Pierce City's. Stockton, with 1,960 residents, is larger
and more spread out than Pierce City and did not have a historic downtown,
although it had some old buildings.
In fact, the tornado may have done Stockton a favor. The town square — actually
an intersection of two streets — is being redesigned to have shrubs, planters
and other green space it never had before. A building code will require that
all new downtown structures meet appearance standards.
“It's just going to be beautiful,” Virgil Beasley said.
The rebuilding did not start smoothly, however, Mayor Ralph Steele said.
“We had a moratorium on building for a while; that was hard for people to
take,” Steele said.
Once construction began, the problem was getting contractors. There is a
long waiting list to get reputable companies, said Linda Wagner of rural
Bill and Linda Wagner lost their house and his home dental office in the
storm and have not started to rebuild.
They are sleeping in a metal storage building on their property, she said.
“You just feel numb,” Wagner said. “It will probably get better after we
get settled. It will take quite a bit of living and experiences to make it
feel like home again.”
The emergency management agency gave $767,000 to 410 households for disaster
assistance. The Small Business Administration made $2.35 million in business
loans. The emergency agency also provided the city several alternative plans
for rebuilding its town and infrastructure.
Steele said state and U.S. flags shredded in the storm are symbols of the
town's recovery. The frayed flags are folded and framed on a city hall wall.
“That means a lot to us,” Steele said. “Our heart was not damaged. We were
hurt, we were discouraged, we saw how bad it was, but we did not give up.”
A siren, please
It seems like a reasonable goal for a community pummeled by a tornado: a
Since the tornado, however, nothing has come easy to Franklin, population
350. It needs $14,800 for the siren, but is still about $2,000 short. It
is trying to raise money to rebuild the community center and is unsure whether
it will get back its post office.
“Our problem is we had no governing body, no mayor; we've had to struggle
through everything,” said Phyllis Bitner, chairwoman of the advisory board
to the volunteer Franklin Community Council. “We are just a little core group
Franklin's plight drew newspaper notice worldwide after actor Paul Newman
donated $10,000 in December, but only an additional $2,600 has come in, aside
from $10,000 from an area family's trust fund that will go toward the construction
of a new park.
The problem, Bitner said, is none of the news reports list the address for
donations: Franklin Community Council Fund, P.O. Box 43, Franklin, KS 66735.
The government has come to Franklin's aid. The emergency management agency
will cover 75 percent of the estimated $231,000 cost of a new community center,
and the state will pay 10 percent, but that still leaves a funding gap.
Another important development, community leaders said, was the recent U.S.
Department of Agriculture approval of a $1.6 million grant to pay for a sewer
system. That should accelerate rebuilding of homes and possibly help draw
businesses to Franklin, said Craig Stokes, community council president. The
council is also trying to get back its post office.
“There's a lot of work ahead,” Stokes said. “I don't think people realize
what is involved in rebuilding a community when you basically start with
To reach Kevin Murphy, call
(816) 234-4464 or send email to