Though the May 2011 Joplin tornado is fresher in memories and was larger in strength and scale, what happened five years ago — on the eve of Mother’s Day — hasn’t faded for those who experienced it.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of another large disaster that hit the area. An EF-4 tornado on May 10, 2008, killed 22 people, most of them in Picher, Okla., and in Newton County.
Gary Roark, emergency management director for Newton County, said he and his wife were in Joplin on that Saturday morning, when it was cool and there were showers.
In the early afternoon, clouds cleared and the temperature rose. Roark remembers seeing someone with a barbecue smoker set up at Lant’s Feed and Farm Supply Store on Missouri Highway 43 on his drive back home to Seneca. He sat down to watch a ballgame on TV, but he also kept an eye on the weather radar on his computer and tuned in his police scanner.
His calm afternoon didn’t last.
The tornado struck Picher first, killing six people. Warning sirens sounded at 5:20 p.m., 19 minutes before the tornado struck, thanks to a weather spotter in Welch, Okla. That was six minutes before the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning.
The siren gave some residents time to flee, but six people didn’t make it.
The tornado destroyed 160 houses in the lead-contaminated town that at the time was undergoing a federal buyout.
The tornado weakened some before merging with a new funnel at the Missouri state line, creating a tornado estimated to be a mile wide.
It was in the area of Highway 43 and Iris Road, between Joplin and Seneca, where the tornado struck with its greatest force.
Seneca Area Fire Protection District volunteer Tyler Casey, 21, was at the location to serve as a weather spotter. Witnesses credited Casey with warning at least three people to take shelter as the tornado approached. Casey, however, was caught in his vehicle. He died of his injuries a few days later.
Manford Vangunda, a board member and medical officer with the Seneca Area Fire Protection District, said the loss of Casey was difficult for the fire district at the time, and it continues to be difficult.
“It hits close to home,” Vangunda said.
He said that every year on the anniversary of Casey’s death, members go to his grave, lay a wreath and have a time of remembrance.
Vangunda was on duty as a paramedic with the Newton County Ambulance District when the tornado struck in 2008. He said his ambulance was dispatched to Highway 43 and Bethel Road, where there was one fatality.
“It’s just one of those days you thought would never happen, and you thought would never happen again,” Vangunda said, noting that it did happen on a larger scale three years later in Joplin. He said the experience in 2008 helped him to be better prepared when the Joplin tornado struck, but only to a point.
“The May 22 (2011) tornado was on such a larger scope, it surpassed everyone’s expectations and abilities,” he said.
Roark said he headed to Highway 43 and Iris Road, arriving around the time the first ambulance arrived. A triage area was set up for the injured.
“It was utter chaos,” he said.
Roark said the 2008 tornado, like the 2011 tornado, was rain-wrapped. He said none of the witnesses he talked to mentioned seeing a funnel.