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‘It sounded like a bomb’: EF3 tornado severely damages Oak Grove neighborhoods

bcronkleton@kcstar.com

Hundreds of Oak Grove residents picked through what was left of their homes Tuesday after a tornado tore through the eastern Jackson County community, damaging hundreds of buildings.

Among them: Mary Harmon. She and her husband, Mike, both 48, along with their 22-year-old son, Levi, and his fiancee, Kate Fielden, 23, were watching a weather report on television Monday night when, Mary Harmon said, the tone of the forecasters seemed to get more “hysterical” regarding Oak Grove.

The four had just moved to the safest place in their house, a basement storage room surrounded by concrete, when everything went black. Mary Harmon felt her ears pop. She heard the storm’s roar. She and Fielden were thrown to the floor.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Fielden said.

Mike Harmon had barely entered the room. Only seconds later, everyone was screaming. Instead of a house above their heads, there was black night air.

The tornado — rated an EF3 by the National Weather Service — packed a top wind speed of 152 mph and a maximum width on the ground of 400 yards. It touched down at 8:12 p.m. south of Grain Valley near South Buckner Tarsney Road and traveled east through Oak Grove to just west of Odessa, covering nearly 12 miles in 15 minutes.

The tornado damaged 483 houses and 12 commercial buildings, officials said at a morning news conference in Oak Grove. Twelve people were injured, but none of the injuries was considered life-threatening.

“Based on some of the damage I’ve seen, it’s rather amazing,” said Carl Scarborough, chief of the Sni Valley Protection District. “Again, just thanks be to God there were no fatalities.”

In Lee’s Summit, another tornado, an EF1, touched down at 8 p.m. near Northwest Chipman Road, according to the National Weather Service. Winds reached 108 mph. The tornado destroyed one building and damaged about 20 homes; no injuries were reported.

Two other tornadoes touched down in the Kansas City region Monday night — one near Carrollton and the other in Leawood.

The Carrollton tornado was rated an EF1 tornado with maximum winds about 110 mph. It touched down about 8:40 p.m. near Missouri 10 southwest of the city and for about six minutes traveled to the northeast for a little over 6 miles. It reached a maximum width of 100 yards.

The Leawood tornado was rated an EF0 with an estimated maximum wind speed about 80 mph. It touched down about 7:52 p.m. near the Ironwoods Park at 147th Street and Mission Road. It traveled 0.3 miles. Its maximum width was 100 yards.

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In the early afternoon, as cleanup continued, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens toured one of Oak Grove’s hardest-hit areas to offer words of concern and support. He lauded the resolve of residents in the town of 7,800.

“It’s incredibly impressive to see the resilience,” Greitens said. “... When you have a situation like this when people have to deal with a lot of loss and a lot of fear, people build courage. And they find ways to come together.”

He continued: “We’ve got their back in this very difficult time.”

Greitens earlier had declared a state of emergency which, among other measures, allows state resources to be used in areas that saw damage from Monday night’s storms.

The governor spoke briefly with people including Gary Smith, who was cleaning out the home of his 86-year-old mother. Anna Smith hid in a bedroom during the storm and watched as the wind smashed through her front widows and ripped open her roof.

“She said she could see the sky,” Smith said.

While some residents felt as if their homes had lurched and moved, the Harmons’, perched on a hillside near the top of 28th Street, actually did. The tornadic winds burst through the first-floor garage, collapsed walls and caused the entire second floor to heave and slide forward down an embankment to rest on its nose.

Mike and Mary Harmon and Fielden were three among a handful of residents who were taken by ambulance to the hospital. Fielden suffered a concussion, but was released. The others feel sore and, from the event alone, disoriented.

“We’re all safe. That’s what matters,” Mary Harmon said.

Another resident, Ann Benjamin, 52, was hiding in her closet when the tornado hit. She could feel the storm’s suction trying to yank open the door. The house heaved, or so it felt.

“It felt like the house slammed” after rising off its foundation, she said. Or maybe it was the roof of the house she had been renting at 2607 Grove St. for five years. When she emerged, she would find it torn away.

She felt lucky. Her house still stood. Even in in the dark, she could see that the home of one of her neighbors was completely gone.

On Tuesday, she stood by her mother, Evelyn Morrill, 69, and her stepfather, Tim Morrill, 66. Holding a change of clothes, Benjamin cried. In the light of day, she looked at the neighborhood again.

“It’s way worse,” she said, than she had imagined.

  
 

“I was in the basement when it hit,” said Myers, who lives in the house with his mom and stepfather.

“I didn’t think it was going to be anything when I heard the siren,” he said. Then his ears popped. He heard the tornado’s characteristic locomotive roar.

“It was crazy,” he said.

His stepfather had halfway scoffed at the storm before it took his home away.

“I didn’t think at all it would hit,” said Scott Perryman, 44. “I said, ‘It’ll probably go around us.’ 

One minute later, he said, the storm burst in.

Mike Hicks was in his home not far from 26th Street and Broadway when the tornado struck.

“We didn’t have time to be afraid,” said Hicks, 52.

“The television station we were watching was saying there was no rotation. That’s when the window blew out,” he said Tuesday morning.

Hicks said he took cover in the basement with his wife and 14-year-old son.

“It felt like it lasted 10 seconds,” he said.

In one block, residents walked among debris, yellow garbage bags packed with belongings slung over their shoulders.

“Down that way, there’s a sailboat that got tossed in someone’s yard,” said R.D. Hill, 50, parked in his truck as security for the Dollar General store on Broadway.

The store, he said, had a hole in the roof “the size of a tractor-trailer” and more than an inch of water on the floor.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp said one instance of looting had been reported.

“We’re going to have zero tolerance for looting,” Sharp said. “We’re not going to let them be victimized twice.”

In the 2500 block of South Clinton Street, Brenda Johnson and her husband, Bruce, 60, had lived in their home for 24 years. Their son Rhett, now 33, grew up there, as did their 30-year-old daughter, Shannon Brown.

The west-facing home no longer exists. It was literally pushed to the east, fully off its joists, so that on Tuesday it lay as a scattered pile of boards, clothes, furniture and appliances. The piano that Brenda Johnson bought with her first paycheck after college stood ruined and on its feet, its harp and strings open to the air.

“Oh, my Bible! How about that!” Brenda Johnson, 59, said as a volunteer helping to salvage their belongings placed the book in her hands.

She cried to see what was left of the home.

The couple, sweethearts since they were in high school together in Vandalia, Mo., hid from the storm in a basement bathroom, beneath the concrete front porch and surrounded by concrete walls.

Bruce Johnson, recently retired from the Missouri Highway Patrol, turned on a flashlight after the electricity went out and the storm passed. He poked his head out of the bathroom, he recalled. The air was filled with dust and insulation that soon would be soaked in rain.

He pointed his flash out the door and up.

“Babe, I think the house is gone,” he said.

A skid-steer loader, run by volunteer Josh Dobney, 33, cleared the streets. American Red Cross volunteers walked from property to property offering assistance.

By noon, families were hours into clean-up mode.

Brenda Johnson looked about. Friends hugged her. She was grateful for them, she said. She was still missing her wedding rings, and hoped to find them. But many other items were saved, the most important being their family photos.

Even as they were cleaning up, she was already contemplating the future, doubting at this point whether she and her husband would rebuild in the same spot and move back in.

“My husband and I just kept saying we have each other,” Brenda Johnson said. “That’s the most important thing. We’ve been high school sweethearts since we were 15. This is just another chapter.”

The town had opened its Civic Center, 2100 Broadway, Monday evening for residents displaced by the twister. But no one stayed overnight, said Sherri Odell, a spokeswoman for The American Red Cross of Western Missouri, who was in Oak Grove on Tuesday morning.

“Nobody came. Basically, that’s a good sign,” Odell said, because it means that those affected stayed with friends or relatives and had other support.

She said the Red Cross had also set up a shelter for those affected by the storm in the Smithville area, north of Kansas City, at the Gower Christian Church, 203 S. Third St., Gower. Mo.

In Oak Grove, utility crews worked on downed power lines. Access for residents was being controlled until the neighborhoods had electricity.

As many as 50 homes and commercial buildings were damaged in Oak Grove near 25th and Main streets, said Casey Hyatt, a worker for Tanner’s tree service.

“It’s just a mess up there,” he said.

The tornado was part of storms and tornadoes that swept through the Kansas City area Monday night causing extensive damage. The line of storms pounded the region with large hail, some the size of tennis balls and baseballs, and strong winds.

Among the hardest hit were Oak Grove, Smithville and Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe.

The National Weather Service will have teams surveying storm and tornado damage in those areas, as well as in Carrollton, Mo.

At one point Monday night, 130,000 customers were without power, according to Kansas City Power & Light. By 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, that number was 5,300 customers.

Seven hundred employees are deployed to restore power, KCP&L spokeswoman Rebecca Galati said, including some with Westar Energy as part of a mutual assistance agreement between the utility companies.

Galati added that more than 150 distribution and transmission poles were destroyed.

Schools were canceled in Oak Grove on Tuesday. Lee’s Summit also canceled school Tuesday because of power outages.

An emergency worker said early Tuesday that most residents that were forced to leave their homes opted to stay with friends and relatives nearby.

Oak Grove straddles the lines between eastern Jackson County and Lafayette County, some 30 minutes east of Kansas City.

Lee’s Summit

The Boise Cascade Building Materials office building was completely destroyed, and a nearby lumber yard sustained minor damage. About 19 other homes and businesses within about five blocks were damaged, and fallen trees, some completely uprooted, damaged power lines in the area.

Despite the damage, a few lucky misses characterized last night’s storm, according to residents and employees in the area.

Pat Miller, a spokesman at Boise Cascade, said that though the office building was destroyed, its roof completely ripped off and beams lying in the parking lot, “neighborhoods got minimal damage.”

The worst of the storm seemed to touch down directly on the office building but didn’t destroy any of the residential buildings a few hundred yards away.

  
 

According to the National Weather Service, no radar indicated rotation indicative of a tornado, and trained storm spotters did not report rotation as the storm passed over Lee’s Summit, the Fire Department reported.

On Olive Street, residents said homes on the west side of the street were without power.

In Michael Hook’s driveway, a thick tree branch lay near his vehicle. He had presciently moved the vehicle last night before the storm hit.

“It would’ve gotten hit by this tree,” Hook said. “The tree just exploded.”

Justin Baker was thankful for another near miss. In his neighbor’s yard, an approximately 30-foot-tall tree was completely uprooted. It was planted in the front yard of a home but fell away from a parked car and just missed doing serious damage to the home.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Robert A. Cronkleton: 816-234-4261, @cronkb

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @maxlondberg

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