As Matt Gaines stood at the front door of his home off Highway J in Smithville Monday night, he heard a roar like a train and knew he needed to get downstairs.
In a basement room connected to his garage, Gaines, his partner, Adrian, and their dog, Boobie, took cover. Debris fell from the floor joists.
Gaines called his partner to him just as a large green safe slid across the floor and a door fell on Gaines’ back. The collapse created a lean-to-like space that both men and the dog huddled under.
“That 3-foot-by-2-foot space saved our lives,” Gaines said.
But when the worst was over, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration employee knew his house was gone: He could look up and see the sky.
An EF2 tornado ripped through the Smithville community Monday night, causing no fatalities or major injuries but damaging more than 60 houses, particularly in the Diamond Crest subdivision and areas near Southwest State Highway J.
Roughly half a dozen homes, including Gaines’, were deemed uninhabitable or were totally destroyed, police said.
“We sustained a lot of property damage in a couple neighborhoods,” Police Chief Jason Lockridge said early Tuesday. “There are a lot of trees down, fences down and houses damaged.”
The northern 25 percent of Smithville was left without power Tuesday morning as the National Weather Service worked to determine whether a tornado or straight-line winds had caused the damage. Shortly after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the National Weather Service announced that the storm was an EF2 tornado that touched ground between 7:18 and 7:46 p.m. Monday in northern Smithville.
The twister took a northeasterly path as it traveled nearly 19 miles past Lathrop. At its maximum width, the tornado was 1,000 yards wide and had peak wind speeds estimated at 132 mph.
On Tuesday morning, residents, volunteers and emergency crews assessed the damage and picked up splintered wood and twisted metal that had blown through the Diamond Crest neighborhood.
At one house on Ironwood Drive, a trampoline hung from the front eaves. In the wreckage of a Diamond Court home: two flannel shirts, an ironing board, an overturned couch, a container of Quaker Oats and pink and yellow foam insulation, which hung from the trees like Christmas ornaments.
Next door, the Watson family surveyed what was left of their home; the storm took their entire eastern-facing wall.
Exposed was Aunt Vicki’s bubble-gum pink room, with the Jonas Brothers poster, the High School Musical decals and shoes hanging from a rack behind the door.
Vicki, who had Down syndrome, lived with the family but died in September, said Tracy Watson, 49. The family kept her ashes in her former room. On Tuesday, they found her ashes at the foot of the house, just outside her window.
Tracy Watson was the only one home during the storm. She heard the smashing of glass and then an “awful quiet,” she’d later tell her husband. Together, they spent Tuesday searching for things that are missing from their home.
It’s funny what a tornado lets you keep, though, Wayne Watson said. His Mizzou Tigers clock stayed put on his wall. A lawn decoration — an iron cat — remained unmoved in the front yard. His white Lincoln MKZ is fine; other cars he owns are totaled. The family owns three dogs and six cats; only Pie, a gray and white cat, was missing.
But it’s still surreal, Wayne Watson said. Just last year, he gave his house a new roof, a new storm door and a new paint job.
“This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said.
At the time the storm struck, Smithville police had officers in storm-spotter training in Liberty. They were sheltered in the basement of a church while the storms struck Smithville. Lockridge, the police chief, said he was impressed with the response by the city and his officers to the storms, as well as the community’s desire to help.
“Perhaps the thing I was most impressed with here in the neighborhood that night was watching all the neighbors come together, helping one another out, making sure everyone was OK and assessing what needed to be done,” Lockridge said. “It was neighbors helping neighbors.”
Gaines also was overwhelmed by the kindness of his neighbors as he and his family picked apart the wreckage of his home Tuesday.
He had bought the house in 2007, Gaines said, totally remodeled it and had paid it off two years ago. It had been a happy place for him and his partner. The couple and their neighbors had become close friends.
On Tuesday, those friends were helping him pick up his entire life off the ground. The storm knocked over a foundation wall, destroyed his home and shed and scattered his belongings across his property.
“Everyone says we should be grateful that we made it out of there,” Gaines said. “I guess I should feel thankful, but I just don’t.”
Tears welled in his eyes.
“It’s all gone.”