Storm provokes fear as it approaches Cape and Scott counties, knocks out power when it arrives

Thursday, May 26, 2011
Residents check out a downed tree near 1411 Themis St. in Cape Girardeau after severe storms blew through the area on Wednesday, May, 25, 2011. (Kristin Eberts)

A powerful series of late-spring storms pummeled Southeast Missouri on Wednesday, felling trees and power lines, ripping off roofs and knocking out power to more than 2,000 Ameren Missouri customers in Cape Girardeau and Scott counties.

With fresh memories of the carnage caused by Sunday's deadly tornado in Joplin, Mo., many in the region weren't taking any chances -- as evidenced by several business closures and canceled appointments around Cape Girardeau on Wednesday afternoon. The storms didn't hit until early evening, but caution was the rule in what one forecaster called an "extremely, extremely dangerous situation."

Funnel clouds and some tornado touchdowns were reported in several locations over a large swath of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas and Kentucky.

The National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., said a funnel cloud was spotted in Scott County near Interstate 55 mile marker 80, and a tree was blown through a home at Benton, Mo. A roof was ripped off a barn in Gordonville, according to another damage report.

At one point, more than 1,600 Ameren Missouri customers in Cape Girardeau County, many of them on the west-central area of Cape Girardeau, were without power. Storms knocked out power to nearly 500 customers in Scott County.

Downed power lines shut down electricity to 1,600 meters and hundreds of customers served by SEMO Electric Cooperative in Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Scott, Stoddard and Mississippi counties, according to spokesman Glen Cantrell.

A funnel cloud also was reportedly spotted in Bollinger County, but not by a trained storm spotter. High winds of around 80 mph knocked down trees and power lines across the county, where there were reports of debris falling from the sky. Falling debris was the scene in several parts of Southeast Missouri.

"This has been very unique. We've had several reports of debris falling out of the sky from as far as 10 miles away from where storms are occurring," said Beverly Poole, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Paducah. "It is an extremely, extremely dangerous situation."

Fear and panic

Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois were squarely in the high-risk zone for severe thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center. In the aftermath of Sunday's EF5 twister that ripped apart Joplin and killed 125 people, the images of the destruction spawned from the nation's deadliest single tornado in more than 60 years stirred anxiety in Southeast Missouri residents.

Cape Girardeau County emergency management officials fielded several calls from panicked residents fearing Wednesday's storm.

"It's almost reached a point of hysteria here," said Richard Knaup, Cape Girardeau County Emergency Management director Wednesday afternoon. His office took calls for much of the day from schools and businesses asking if they should close early.

The Oak Ridge School District dismissed its summer school early in the afternoon. Many mental health services providers reported canceled appointments.

SoutheastHEALTH sent employees who worked away from its Broadway hospital campus home about 2:30 p.m. The decision was made because the sites were potentially at a great risk and the hospital was receiving heightened alerts from state and local authorities, said Sylvia Moore, chief operating officer. At the Southeast Cancer Center, the staff treated patients who were already there and then went home, so that patient care was not disrupted.

Saint Francis Medical Center was on a heightened alert, said Robert Grayhek, director of trauma and disaster services. Saint Francis is the only state-designated Level III trauma center between St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn.

Knaup said rumors incited more panic. There was talk that the city of Cape Girardeau dismissed its workers early, but that did not occur, according to the city manager's office. He said the scale the National Weather Service uses, which rates storms 1 through 10, caused some confusion among residents.

"We were at level 8 this morning, it's at a 9 now," Knaup said Wednesday afternoon. "That just means there are certain ducks that have to be in a row for bad weather and there are 9 ducks in a row. It doesn't mean there is a 90 percent chance of a tornado."

Dr. Brad Robison, a Cape Girardeau psychiatrist, said this spring's string of severe weather and flooding has been especially hard on those with weather-related anxieties. For his clients, particularly children, who are obsessed with forecasts during severe weather threats to the point of panic and emotional paralysis, Wednesday was particularly difficult.

"They can actually see the tornado coming at them long before a tornado warning has been issued," Robison said.

But this destructive spring has provided plenty of reasons to worry.

Poole said the Paducah region of the National Weather Service, including Southeast Missouri, had already seen a record 50 tornadoes this year before Wednesday's storm outbreak.

"I think that people's awareness is at a level that it has never been at," she said. "When you add everything together, the number of tornadoes in our area, in Birmingham [Ala.], in Joplin, I think people are realizing the seriousness of this violent trend we're in."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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