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Downburst, tornado combine for deadly storm conditions in Scott County
DIEHLSTADT, Mo. -- An EF-2 tornado with winds up to 115 mph ripped through southeastern Scott County on Monday night, tearing apart a mobile home on Highway 77, killing an elderly man and his two grown sons.
The National Weather Service confirmed the tornado and a second severe weather event, a downburst with winds reaching 100 mph, were responsible for damaging 52 homes, several businesses, dozens of trees and some crops.
While winds flow into a tornado, they flow out of a downburst, forcing everything on the ground outward, explained David Purdy, meteorological technician with the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky. The downburst occurred first at 8:40 p.m. leaving a path of destruction 3.5 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, according to the National Weather Service.
"The downburst may have initiated the tornado. It's not a typical pattern, but it's not impossible," Purdy said.
The EF-2 tornado came four minutes after the downburst, with a path 75 yards wide and half a mile long. In addition to destroying the mobile home, the tornado blew the home's undercarriage 100 yards away, Purdy said.
Kelly Wilke, who lives near Diehlstadt, a town of 160 people where the storm hit hardest, said she now realizes that severe weather can unpredictably change everything in just a matter of minutes.
"You see that," she said, pointing to family members of Loy, Jasper and Randy Miller, the men killed in the storm, as they searched through debris barely recognizable as the mobile home and its contents, now scattered across a pasture, "and it's just like, 'Wow.' Your life can be destroyed that quick. It just happened."
Loy Miller, 70, Jasper Miller, 50, and Randy Miller, 48, were the only people in the mobile home when the storm hit. Their identities were confirmed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol early Tuesday. Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter and other emergency management officials said no other fatalities or injuries from the storm were reported by Tuesday afternoon, but damage assessments in Diehlstadt were ongoing.
Jackie Groves, owner of CJ's Lounge, a bar next door to the Millers' property, said he and about 10 patrons there Monday night knew the area was under a severe thunderstorm warning around 8:30 p.m., but heavy rain and hail were all they expected until their ears began to pop and they heard an unfamiliar roar outside.
"I didn't believe it when they said the trailer was gone," Groves said.
After calling 911, Groves, knowing the Millers were usually at home that time of night, began to search the pasture near the trailer for the men.
"It was pretty bad to have to walk up on something like that," he said of when the bodies of the Millers were discovered hundreds of feet from where the mobile home once sat.
The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Scott County at 8:19 p.m. and a tornado warning for the southeastern portion of the county at 8:43 p.m., according to meteorologist Chris Nowles. Diehlstadt has no warning sirens. The severe thunderstorm warning advised that the approaching storm could contain golf ball-sized hail and winds up to 60 mph.
Wilke was watching TV during the storm with her daughter Ashley Dravis at Dravis' home two doors down from the site of the fatalities.
Dravis said a severe thunderstorm warning alone wasn't enough to make them take cover, but they changed their minds quickly when the satellite signal went out, debris began to hit the side of the house and they saw doors had been torn from their barn.
"There was just no warning," Dravis said. "The tornado came through by the time we heard anything about one."
Nowles said the storm intensified quickly as it neared an area of low pressure tracking across the region, and the weather service upgraded the warning as tightening rotation within the storm was observed through radar imaging.
Walter and sheriff's deputies were out checking on Diehlstadt residents Tuesday morning along with damage assessment teams from the State Emergency Management Agency and American Red Cross volunteers. A range of damage could be seen across most of town. Roofs of several homes were torn off entirely, and at least two churches were damaged, including First Southern Baptist Church. Its steeple lay on the ground across the street.
Volunteers from the Red Cross were working to set up a mobile aid unit early Tuesday in an open area between Loughborough and Kirkpatrick streets to provide food and water for storm victims. Crews from SEMO Electric Cooperative had power restored to the area by 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, operations manager Marty Vineyard said. At the peak of the storm, the company had 1,300 customers without electricity.
Tina Pattengill, a Red Cross volunteer, said the agency would likely stay on site through Tuesday evening.
An official assessment of damage to area crops was not immediately available Tuesday, but David Reinbott, University of Missouri-Extension agriculture program director for Scott County and the southeast region, said he viewed several storm-damaged corn crops bordering Highway 77 near Diehlstadt on Tuesday morning.
Scott County emergency management director Tom Beardslee wasn't optimistic a state or federal disaster declaration would be possible.
"It was pretty isolated. It's devastating to the people who live in Diehlstadt, but at the statewide level that FEMA looks at for awarding disaster funds, that could be a lot like the Harrisburg thing. They had a lot of local damage, but they didn't get a federal declaration," Beardslee said.
Staff writers Melissa Miller and Scott Moyers contributed to this report.