Updated at 4 p.m., March 1, 2017 — Residents of Perryville, Mo., are recovering from a tornado that ripped through the town late Tuesday, killing one man and damaging more than 100 homes.
Many homes in the community about 90 miles south of St. Louis were left only with a foundation, Perryville Fire Chief Jeremy Triller said.
Among those who lost their homes to the tornado was Lisa Ervin, who works at the Subway in Marble Hill, Mo. Her A-frame house was destroyed.
“It’s no longer there,” she said. “Our attic is over there in our neighbor’s yard.”
Ervin said she was at work when the tornado hit, and her children were at her daughter’s house.
“They’re all okay,” she said. “God blessed us. We’re all safe.”
A 24-year-old man from Perryville died when the tornado blew his car off Interstate 55, ejecting him. Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Justin Wheatley said. A passenger, who also was ejected, was not injured.
National Weather Service officials said Wednesday that the tornado, which covered an area up to three quarters of a mile wide, roared through about 15 miles of the county. The storm, which generated winds of 120 mph, was part of a spring-like system that also killed at least two people in Illinois and damaged property in several states.
Wheatley said troopers responded to multiple crashes on I-55 late Tuesday; most involved unoccupied vehicles from a salvage yard. Authorities restricted a stretch of northbound I-55 near Perryville to one lane to clear the roadway, he said.
The local hospital reported about a dozen minor injuries.
At the peak of the storm, there were 2,200 utility customers without power, said Vaughn Robertson, CEO of Citizens Electric Corp. He said more than 100 workers were out after the storm. By early Wednesday afternoon, power had been restored to all but 800.
But there was still a lot of damage in the area, including 80 broken power poles and many downed trees, Robertson said.
Before the storm, National Weather Service spoke with officials from state and local emergency management agencies to inform them that weather conditions could produce a severe tornado.
“We knew [the] atmosphere was primed for something like what we saw last night,” said Rick Shanklin, a NWS warning coordination meteorologist from Paducah, Kentucky. “Our condolences to those in Perry County who suffered loss through this event.”
Shanklin said it’s rare to see such an intense tornado and the 58-county area his office serves may not see one for years. But he said Perry County has seen a couple in the last decade and a half, and the one that hit Perryville on Wednesday is similar to the 1925 Tri-State tornado — one of the nation’s most powerful.
“It can cause some tough times for people who have gone through a very traumatic situation like this,” Shanklin said.
Members of the Missouri House held a moment of silence Wednesday morning in honor of Perryville residents.
Gov. Eric Greitens and his director of public safety, Drew Juden, visited the town mid-afternoon to assess the damage. Greitens said he was impressed by the mobilization of first responders and hundreds of volunteers, and is “so proud of what the people in Perryville are doing.”
“We just came down to let them know, No. 1, we care about them, and No.2, that they got everything that they need in order to recover,” Greitens said, noting that he has increased money for public safety in the state.
Perry County Emergency Management Director Hank Voelker said county officials are now turning their attention to making sure that the community recovers. As early as Thursday, they will help displaced residents gather their belongings from damaged homes.
“We have an army of volunteers showing up,” Voelker said. “I’m coordinating a shelter set up for anyone displaced who does not have a place to go. [We] also have shelters set up for their pets — very important [that] everyone has a place to go with their loved one if it is a pet.”
Jill Abernathy, who lived on Kyle Lane, has already found her wedding ring from the house, which was heavily damaged. She had removed it to wash dishes.
Abernathy said when their cell phones starting ringing Wednesday night, she and her husband had about five minutes take their two children to the basement.
“We thought it was going to go over and then about that time, we heard the roar and decided to hunker down,” she said. “And then 20 seconds later it was over.”
Abernathy and her family will be staying in Perryville at her in-laws’ house, which was not hit by the storm. They consider themselves very lucky to have survived.
“You don’t think tornadoes are really going to hit; you just go downstairs,” she said. “We didn’t have our shoes, we didn’t have our purses, nothing, we had nothing. We had our phones because we needed flashlights but that’s it.”
Although Perryville will need volunteers to clean up after the tornado, people interested in lending a hand should not travel there until officials set up a coordinated response, said Kyle Schott, a regional director for Catholic Charities of Southeastern Missouri.
“The most important thing people can donate is money,” said Schott, who referred people to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Catholic Charities.
Ervin said she was grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, including Rhodes 101 Convenience Store and Imo’s Pizza, which provided lunch to the victims and volunteers.
The St. Louis Red Cross is reporting that 100 people have gathered at the Red Cross shelter in Perryville to help the community. The Salvation Army also is assisting.
“The people, the church groups that have come out to help … just thank you so much from the bottom of my heart,” Ervin said. “I can’t ask for enough help.”
Now that her home is gone, Ervin plans to stay with her daughter.
“I’ve never been through this,” she said. “Never been like this, so I don’t know what happens now.”
Krissy Lane in Jefferson City and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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