Digging out: Normalcy long way off for many in Caruthersville

Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Nini Green, 10, tried to lift the exterior wall to her bedroom to retrieve some of her personal items Tuesday in Caruthersville, Mo. Nini, her mother and four other children took cover in the bathtub while their house was destroyed in a tornado that moved through the area Sunday evening. (Diane L. Wilson)

CARUTHERSVILLE, Mo. -- At first, Larry Smith's only concern was moving his cars out from under the falling hail.

His family was inside his Caruthersville home watching a movie on the VCR, unaware of the tornado warnings that had been given for their area. After he parked the last vehicle under a carport, the winds quickly picked up. Windows inside Smith's home shattered, prompting his wife to take his nephew and their four children into the bathroom for protection.

When a wall of the garage began to fall, the 47-year-old Smith dropped to his knees. The wall struck his head and back as it crashed down.

Inside the home, Smith's wife, Laquita Green, 28, shielded the five children with her body as the twister blew down the walls and ripped off the roof. Forced to the ground between the fallen wall and his car, Smith rode out the storm as his garage was thrown away.

Smith thinks he was unconscious during part of the seven or eight minutes that elapsed before he pulled himself through a hole in the debris and pulled the children from the house one by one.

On Tuesday the family gathered at their broken house, sifting through debris in the hopes of finding something, anything, of value.

"I'm just trying to save something. We don't have anything," Smith said as his two of daughters climbed about a bunk bed they hoped to salvage. Despite cut arms and a sore abdomen, Smith said he had to finish looking through his property and take care of his family before tending to his own wounds.

Smith's family was one of hundreds picking through the wreckage caused by the F-3 tornado that tore threw their town Sunday night.

Electricity was restored to about half the town, but as of Tuesday evening AmerenUE reported that 1,770 customers in Caruthersville were still without power.

According to city attorney Lawrence Dorroh, the town will also remain under a boil order until at least Friday. One of the town's water towers was knocked down.

About 60 people were treated for injuries, and one reported in critical condition was flown to a nearby hospital, Dorroh said. There were no deaths.

The tornado destroyed 141 single-family homes, 22 mobile homes and 30 duplexes, according to Dorroh.

Major damage was caused to 105 homes, four mobile homes and 72 duplexes. Another 87 homes and seven mobile homes had minor damage, Dorroh said.

Due to the damages, elections in town were postponed until May 2, the Associated Press reported.

In the front of Caruthersville High School, an uprooted 20-foot diameter tree leaned on the building's gymnasium and auditoriumand crushed a portion of its roof. Several windows were blown out, and the front lawn was littered with twigs and branches.

Across the street at the middle school, the roof and two walls of the cafeteria were gone, leaving a pile of wood and concrete where pupils used to eat their lunches.

While no school administrators were on the grounds Tuesday afternoon, custodians said the schools would be closed this week and during the school's spring break next week as officials figure out what to do.

To help with the rebuilding of the devastated town, U.S. Sens. Jim Talent and Kit Bond of Missouri, and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, asked President George W. Bush Tuesday to approve Gov. Matt Blunt's request for a disaster declaration for 10 Southeast Missouri counties battered by the storms.

"A speedy disaster declaration will enable people who have lost their homes to start the process of rebuilding and recovering," Emerson said in a release from Talent's office.

Casino Aztar in Caruthersville closed Monday and Tuesday. It paid about 100 of its employees to assist with cleanup, said casino president and chief executive officer George Stadler. Corporations such as Wal-Mart used the casino's parking lot to drop off donations, including bottled water, for later distribution to residents who have lost their home.

At a local community center, the American Red Cross housed 196 residents over the night, said Saundra Blankenship, the organization's shelter manager. About 3,100 meals were served three times a day out of the facility, and trucks distributed 2,000 more to local residents throughout the town.

The sound of chainsaws cutting through fallen trees could be heard all through the damaged neighborhoods. Families used rakes to clean up wood and metal that covered their front lawns. Dead and downed power lines were strewn across lawns and roads. Children's mangled toys lay between wooden frames and metal fences.

Darlene Dale, 40, hoped to find some of her mother's possessions amidst twisted metal and broken wood. After searching a debris-littered ditch and the wreckage of her mother's mobile home, Dale found only curtain roads and a cooking pan. The mobile home was tossed more than 300 feet from where it had sat days before.

The Rev. Howard Boswell of Shiloh Worship Center visited congregation members in Caruthersville to help where he could. "Sometimes it's just being there talking; sometimes it's picking something up," Boswell said. "It's a lot of work."

Wielding a chainsaw, Boswell cut up a large tree lying in front of the home of Peter Springer, 22.

Springer said he was in his bedroom Sunday night when a tree fell on his home, smashing through a window and tearing off part of his roof.

"I'm glad I'm still alive," he said.

John Agnew Jr., 70, a lifelong Caruthersville resident, said he's never seen anything like this in his life.

Agnew rode out the storm in his closet. Aside from a few broken windows and part of a wall and ceiling torn from his den, his home was relatively unscathed.

Under Tuesday's sunny sky, Agnew's family gathered in front of his house to cook hamburgers and hot-dogs on a charcoal grill. He hoped the electricity would be returned by next week and that things would be "back to normal" within a month.

For Smith and Green, back-to-normal may take longer. The family rented its home and had no insurance. The only savings the family had were five $100 bills under a mattress. Green said all but one were lost to the storm.

"We don't know what we're going to do," she said. Their only option was to stay with her mother until they could get back on their feet. "We're just grateful that no one got badly hurt."

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 127

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