‘We’ll make it’: Tornado leaves Missouri town mourning 3 neighbors, facing the damage

Susan Whittle and her family have lived in a two-story home just outside Golden City, Missouri, for 27 years.

It’s likely unsalvageable. But she is alive.

The storm killed three people, including a couple in their 80s and a 56-year-old woman whose husband was seriously injured.

“It’s a lot to get your head around,” Whittle said.

She was among scores of residents who emerged from their homes Thursday to assess the damage left behind after the tornado tore through their small town, roughly 140 miles south of Kansas City in Barton County.

After the tornado, toppled trees in the front yard were mangled, with tin and plastic caught in its limbs. Other debris dotted the property and many of the house’s shingles and windows were blown out.

On Wednesday night, Whittle had been tracking the storm. She and her husband didn’t hear any sirens but they went into the basement when a warning was issued. They heard the rain come down harder, and “the wind was just roaring,” Whittle said.

That’s when she thought: This is real.

The tornado came through quickly at 9:30 p.m. and was gone, leaving behind a path of destruction. When the couple emerged from the basement, they first noticed the wall in a bathroom had separated from the structure. Strong winds tore away the roof of a fertilizer bin and caused other damage.

The same night, a tornado smashed through Jefferson City, leaving about 25 people hurt. The tornadoes came eight years to the day after Joplin was hit by an EF-5 tornado that killed 161 people in 2011.

In Golden City, the tornado sirens gave people “a whole lot of warning,” said Barton County Sheriff Mitch Shaw. The area lost power for about five hours and several roads were blocked because of downed power lines.

After the tornado passed, deputies checked the homes in its path.

The Whittles found more damage throughout the house. Several windows were blown out. A piece of metal from their farm had been thrown up to the house. “It was unbelievable,” she said.

The Missouri Highway Patrol on Thursday identified the three people killed by the tornado. Kenneth G. Harris, 86, and his wife Opal P. Harris, 83, were found about 200 yards from their home in the 800 block of SE 80th Lane.

A third victim, Betty R. Berg, 56, was located amid debris just outside her mobile home in the 800 block of E State Route 126. Her husband, Mark Berg, 56, suffered serious injuries. He was taken to a hospital in Kansas City, Sheriff Shaw said.

Betty Berg lived near the Whittles.

“She was just a good neighbor,” Susan Whittle said. Berg used to check on their cows. Kenneth and Opal Harris had lived in Golden City their entire lives, she said.

They were longtime community members, she said, and the loss of life has “been awful.”

Another neighbor, Tommy Bilson, described the couple as private but good neighbors.

“If you ever needed help, you’d call them,” Bilson said. And he sometimes did, when there was a power outage.

Bilson has lived in Golden City for more than three decades. He said his property has gone through three tornadoes, but none were like this one.

“I was hunkered down in my cellar,” he said. “They say it sounds like a freight train and they’re right.”

Terry Longan, pastor of First Christian Church, said several church members were affected by the three deaths.

“It’s a terrible situation,” Longan said.

Several areas around Golden City were impassable Thursday because of flooded roads. Crews from the Missouri Department of Transportation directed traffic in the area hit hardest by the tornado.

On Thursday, several people, some wielding chainsaws, came by the Whittles’ home to help clear the debris.

“Friends and family have been a saving grace,” Whittle said. “We’ll make it. It will be alright.”

Her son agreed. “Everybody’s alive,” Brian Whittle said. “That’s all that matters.”

Brian Whittle said he grew up in this house in Golden City. It’s likely ruined, now. Wednesday’s was the second tornado in three days to hit this southwest portion of the state.

Down the road from the Whittles, Justin McIntyre was sitting atop a pile of rubble that was once a barn. He said the farm had been his grandparents’, and his grandfather had built a home nearby in 1973.

The tornado ripped off part of the house, leaving it exposed. McIntyre said when he saw the damage, he was in disbelief.

Several pickup trucks lined the road near the property as community members stopped by to help clear tree limbs.

“Even if they’ve got some damage, they’re helping,” he said. “It’s a very tight community.”

A disaster action team from the American Red Cross went from house to house to see what needs residents have. They’ll help with food, clothes and shelter for three days after a disaster.

Team member Jeff Boyd said disasters brings the community down but then brings it together.

“It’s a two-stage thing,” said Boyd, whose own property also suffered damage in the tornado. “Lots of people here have stepped up to help their neighbors.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.