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Tornadoes across Missouri, Illinois, bring reminders and lessons from Joplin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2012 - On Wednesday morning, before driving back to St. Louis from Potosi, Mo., Quinn Gardner took a moment to post on her Facebook page.

“Safe,” wrote the field and operations coordinator for the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team. “Heading back to St. Louis to coordinate the storm and fire response. I guess no one told March it was a leap year, and it came early with its lion-ness.”

Cindy Erickson, CEO of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Red Cross, was at a national conference with the CEO of Joplin’s Red Cross chapter.

After they heard of Wednesday morning's tornado, they agreed: “It feels like it’s starting all over again,” says Erickson, who flew home and is now in Harrisburg, Ill.

When news of the deadly tornadoes that killed at least nine in Missouri and Illinois broke, many of those involved with tornado recovery last spring, including Gardner, thought of Joplin.

Then, she saw a few lessons had been learned from the May 22 tornado, which killed 157.

“I think people really learned a lot from Joplin,” she says

On the Strip

On Wednesday morning, a string of tornadoes hit Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Nebraska. In Harrisburg, Ill., at least six are dead, with more than 100 injured. The National Weather Service reported four tornadoes in southwest Missouri. While no one in Branson died, according to news reports, there were three deaths elsewhere in the state.

Shortly after the tornado hit Branson, requests came in from the affected communities for AmeriCorps. And by the time Gardner’s team reached Branson, the community was ready for them with an office and housing for the AmeriCorps volunteers, who are setting up volunteer reception centers.

“I definitely see communities understanding the role volunteers can play,” she says.

AmeriCorps St. Louis still has a team in Joplin, and on Wednesday they headed to Branson. Chad Angell, an AmeriCorps St. Louis volunteer based in Joplin, is in Branson now.

“The first thing you think is, was it as devastating as Joplin?” he says. “No tornado’s great, but luckily it wasn’t as devastating.”

Any loss of life feels huge, especially to family and friends, Gardner says. “But the scope of this is much different than what we’re dealing with in Joplin.”

AmeriCorps St. Louis is working with both Stone and Taney counties.

Wednesday’s tornado ping-ponged along the strip of Highway 76, says Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau.

There have been 33 moderate or light injuries, and most of the damage happened along the strip and the Branson Landing.

“The strip is open,” Berry says. “We have all seven miles of 76 out to Silver Dollar City open.”

Updates on what’s happening in Branson are being posted at www.explorebranson.com. Branson hasn’t been destroyed, Berry emphasized. She thinks about 15 businesses will have to totally rebuild.

Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency for parts of the state that were hit. And currently, the Missouri National Guard has 50 soldiers in Branson working with security, according to Major Tammy Spicer. She got fresh impressions of the storm’s destruction throughout the day.

“It’s just a reminder of how devastating these storms can be.”

Hammers in the background

Today, Peggy Barnhart got to see for herself what the tornado left in parts of Harrisburg, Ill.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says the regional communications director with the St. Louis chapter of the Red Cross.

There’s a semi on its side on the sidewalk, businesses flattened, “and in all this devastation, there’s a bicycle, an Elmo head, a stretched out Slinky.”

Six people lost their lives in Harrisburg in Wednesday morning’s storm, about 100 were injured, and the destruction seems to be limited to just a few areas.

The Red Cross has set up a shelter and a fixed meal site, but many people are staying with neighbors. That tells Barnhart something about the community.

“People actually seem to be in fair spirits, and I think that this is a community that comes in and takes care of its own. Everyone’s out and everyone’s helping.”

While Erickson, also in Harrisburg, spoke with the Beacon, the sound of pounding hammers punched through the background. One business, she said, was already installing a new roof.

“That really says a lot about their resilience.”

Better safe

2011 had the second highest number of tornadoes on record — 1,690, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

With the scattered evidence of tornadoes already around the region, will 2012 beat that?

It might be impossible to say.

John Fuller, chief meteorologist with KPLR 11, says forecasters can’t get much more than six to 10 days out with weather predictions. People’s antennas may be up now, he says, because February seems early for a tornado to strike.

“But they can happen any time of the year, any month of the year, any time of the day, any state in the union.”

We did have a mild winter, which could lead to a cool spring and summer, he says. “But I don’t think there’s a direct correlation to a nasty spring.”

And ultimately, he says, there’s no way of knowing. “When severe weather happens, it’s a case by case, immediate short-term event.”

What people can prepare for is how they’ll respond.

The Red Cross offers these three simple steps: Get a kit, make a plan and be prepared.

Barnhart also recommends www.readyrating.org for businesses and schools, which helps people perform assessments, learn best practices and get a map for improvement.All Ready offers tips on how to build that kit, what resources are in your neighborhood and what kinds of emergencies might hit our area.

“The thing about disasters is they’re unpredictable,” Angell says. “You don’t know when they’re going to hit, or where they’re going to hit, so you just need to be ready.”

According to the National Weather Service, there’s currently a slight risk for thunderstorms in the Ozarks and the potential for large hail over areas hit by Wednesday’s tornadoes.

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