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Health, Science, Environment

A tornado brought heartbreak to Defiance. Neighbors are helping to pick up the pieces

Tammy Brinker, of Defiance, Missouri, helps pick up debris on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, at the Callaway Crest Farm in Defiance, Missouri. An EF-3 tornado ripped through the community of roughly 150 on Friday night, killing one and several damaging over a dozen homes.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Tammy Brinker, of Defiance, helps pick up debris on Monday at the nearby Callaway Crest Farm. An EF-3 tornado ripped through the community of roughly 150 on Friday night, killing one and several damaging over a dozen homes.

DEFIANCE — Allison and Nathan Laupp were engaged to be married when they broke ground on their dream home. The evening before their wedding, the couple practiced their first dance in the dirt where a basement foundation would soon be poured. Sixteen years later, that basement would save their lives.

An EF-3 tornado ripped through Defiance, a town of about 150 in St. Charles County's wine country, on Friday. County officials say damages could surpass $3.5 million. That tornado was one of many in a wave of deadly storms that devastated communities across six states. Six workers were killed in an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, after storms ripped through the building.

In Defiance, the storm system killed one resident and severely damaged, or completely flattened, over a dozen homes. The Laupp’s house was one of them.

The couple, along with their three young children, are living in a nearby hotel room while they wait to hear from their insurers and until they can move into a transitional home. They hope to rebuild their Defiance home. But first, the family is looking to get away for the holidays — maybe to the Great Smoky Mountains or Florida.

“It’s hard to see our area looking like this,” said Allison Laupp, who is pregnant with the couple's fourth child. “You're never prepared to have a plan B when your house is destroyed.”

In the aftermath of the deadly storms, both Missouri and Illinois were found to have a patchwork of city- and county-adopted building codes, but no statewide building standards related directly to tornado safety. That has some now asking — is it enough? Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Monday that he is considering whether the state should update its building codes in response to more frequent, severe storms.

Allison Laupp’s father, Bob Held, served as the unofficial general contractor during the construction of her house. When they were building in 2006, the family found out St. Charles County required the home to have hurricane straps — connectors used to strengthen wood-framed roofs and homes.

Laupp said she didn’t think anything of it. Their home was built into a hill, and she had heard tornadoes follow the path of least resistance. So while she thought the straps would probably never be used, they were added anyway.

“Our house looks like it was hit by a tornado — because it was,” she wrote in a social media post. “It feels like it is destroyed.”

The Laupp family's home in Defiance, Missouri before and after an EF-3 tornado hit the town of about 150 in St. Charles County.
Provided by Allison Laupp
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The Laupp family's home in Defiance, before and after an EF-3 tornado hit the community in St. Charles County.

Volunteers race to aid neighbors

Joe Brazil has never seen a storm of this magnitude during the 20 years he has represented the area around Defiance as a St. Charles County councilman, he said. While the damage and death toll is dwarfed by the scale of destruction experienced by some parts of Kentucky, he said the emotional impact is just as hard to grapple with.

“For our little community — our little town of Defiance, Missouri — you know, 15 homes being destroyed, it's a pretty big deal,” Brazil said. “There were cars that were thrown half a mile we found in fields, it’s just unbelievable.”

About a dozen volunteers, young and old, descended on Callaway Crest Farm on Monday morning to help clear the broken wood and twisted metal scattered across the property. The debris was a barn before it collapsed during the storm on Friday, trapping five horses. Three made it out alive after quick community response.

“It’s something I never want to experience again in my life,” said Ashley Stephan, 23, who cares for the horses at Callaway Crest. She was in her nearby Augusta home, about 9 miles south of Defiance, when the storm struck.

After it had passed, Stephan attempted walking to the farm from her home. She only made it about halfway because of downed power lines and debris blocking the roads. "If you've seen the barn, you wouldn't expect anything to make it out alive,” she said.

A car is flipped among debris on Monday on Route K in Defiance, Missouri. An EF-3 tornado ripped through the community of roughly 150 on Friday night, killing one and severely damaging over a dozen homes.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
A car is flipped on Monday along Route K in Defiance, Missouri.

Rain pummeled first responders and volunteers as they worked for five hours in the dark to save the horses, with headlights from nearby vehicles illuminating the scene.

Mary Jane King, who has owned the farm for about 20 years, said she was amazed at the swiftness of the community response and the willingness to help. “It was an amazing effort by so many ... to save the 3 horses that were rescued from the collapsed barn,” she wrote on Facebook following the dramatic scene. “What an amazing community we live in — thank you to everyone.”

Nathan Laupp, Allison’s 39-year-old Marine Corps veteran husband, usually is the one helping vets through the St. Louis Blues Warrior Hockey Team or other philanthropic organizations he works with. He said being on the flip side can feel overwhelming at times, but the support shows the bond the community has.

The Laupp family: Allison, Nathan, Natalie, 8, Teddy, 2, and Owen, 10.
Courtesy of Allison Laupp
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Erin Leigh Photography LLC
The Laupp family: Allison; Nathan; Natalie, 8; Teddy, 2; and Owen, 10.

Towering oaks and walnut trees were snapped and flung across fields, along with a blanket of home insulation that still lines the street the Laupps lived on. A wooden playset the couple’s 2-year-old son Teddy would play on was “broken down to toothpicks,” Allison Laupp said. She said her son keeps talking about how the twister broke his playset. “I think it's just really traumatic for him because it's hard to understand why these things happen and there's really no way to explain it.”

Neighbors, community members and Nathan Laupp’s military colleagues volunteered their weekend helping pick up the debris at the family’s home.

“It's not just like a one-and-done. Everyone says, ‘OK, what else do you need now?’” Nathan Laupp said. “No one wants a pat on the back. No one’s doing it to get recognition. It’s genuine folks that want to help.”

The extent of the generosity in the community was immediate. The day after the family arrived at the hotel, the Laupps were notified they had something waiting for them at the front desk. After Nathan Laupp approached the desk, he wept after seeing there were bags of donated clothes and other essentials for his family.

“I just broke down, just broke down and just started crying right there,” he said, pushing back tears as he recounted the experience. “I've always been on the other side of it, and it just means a lot to have that kind of support.”

Within two days, they had truckloads of donated clothing. “Everything we've asked for, we've gotten tenfold,” Allison Laupp said. “I've had to tell people, please no more. I have no room. I'm in a hotel. The whole community has donated so many items to the firehouse that they're full.”

A family friend set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to support the Laupp family’s recovery efforts that has raised over $8,500 in two days.

Despite the disaster, Capt. Chris Hunt, director of the St. Charles County Regional Emergency Management agency, said the community has truly rallied behind their neighbors in their time of need.

“I'll tell you what we've seen. We've seen the American spirit, and we've seen the spirit of people who live in this state and live in this county,” Hunt said. “There has been no shortage of volunteers. I think it's reassuring to see that during disasters, we really do come together and we help each other.”

Nathan Laupp, 39, stands outside his Defiance, Missouri home on Wednesday after after an EF-3 tornado ripped through the community last week. County officials estimate damages to surpass $3.5 million.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Nathan Laupp, 39, of Defiance, stands outside his tornado-damaged home on Wednesday.

Residents await federal and state aid

On Wednesday, St. Charles County officials announced they estimate damages caused from the tornado and severe storms exceed $3.5 million. State and local officials now wait to see if they qualify for support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ll figure out a way to do what we gotta do,” Brazil, the county councilman said, vowing to help those whose homes were destroyed. “Even if we don’t get federal funding, we’ll figure it out with our county funding. [...] You absolutely rebuild, you don’t run from it — we’re going to figure it out.”

President Joe Biden said his administration will do "whatever is needed" during a press conference from Wilmington, Delaware, last weekend. “This is likely one of the largest tornado outbreaks in history,” he said. “The federal government will do everything, everything it can possibly do to help.”

Cellulose insulation covers the Laupp family’s living room on Wednesday in Defiance, Missouri. Their home was severely damaged after an EF-3 tornado ripped through the community of roughly 150 on Friday night, severely damaging or flattening over a dozen homes.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Cellulose insulation covers the Laupp family’s living room on Wednesday. Their Defiance home was severely damaged after an EF-3 tornado ripped through the community Friday night, severely damaging or flattening over a dozen homes.

Biden toured western Kentucky on Wednesday along with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and federal officials to assess damage in the region caused by tornados that have killed over 80 in the commonwealth.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson toured the damage in Defiance on Sunday and said early warning systems prevented the losses from being greater. “I think one of the good sides of it, though, is that in today’s time, people have a lot better way of having warning devices, trying to figure out when to take shelter,” Parson said. “And I think we’ve seen that.”

Hunt echoed the governor’s sentiments. “I'm confident that lives were saved because of the warnings,” he said. “I have spoken to several residents who heard the sirens and said that they went into their basement — these are residents whose houses were completely destroyed, so I know it saves lives.”

While the twister battered the home Allison and Nathan worked so hard for, she said they were thankful to be able to hold their three children. They were thankful to be able to tell them it is going to be OK.

“As our ceiling and trusses collapsed and ripped apart, and everything fell to the floor above us, this 16-year-old house filled with memories protected the only thing that really matters.”

Follow Brian on Twitter and Instagram: @brianmmunoz

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