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 large trees.

“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 chief executive.

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 to communities.

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 Stockton.

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 storm siren.

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 of volunteers.”

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 nothing.”

To reach Kevin Murphy, call

(816) 234-4464 or send email to

kmurphy@kcstar.com.

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