By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
PIERCE CITY, Mo. —
Editor’s note: In the days leading up to May 4, 2003, weather forecasters knew that conditions were ripe for the development of a powerful tornado. What they did not see coming were three of them.
Three long-lived, powerful tornadoes hit Southeast Kansas and Southwest Missouri, killing 19 people and injuring 143.
An F-3 tornado touched down in Cherokee County, Kan., before moving through the community of Smithfield and then into Carl Junction. It killed one person in Cherokee County, two others near the state line and a couple just west of Carl Junction. More than 30 percent of the homes and buildings in Carl Junction were damaged or destroyed.
A second tornado that hit Pierce City was rated an F-3. It remained on the ground to the edge of Springfield. One person was killed in Pierce City, and six others were killed before that storm played out.
Yet another tornado hit the unincorporated Crawford County, Kan., community of Franklin. The F-4 destroyed about one-third of Franklin’s 200 households. One resident was killed. The tornado lifted briefly before touching back down in rural Barton County, and it stayed on the ground through Stockton. In all, that tornado claimed seven lives.
With the passage of a decade, the communities have rebuilt and moved forward, but the recovery continues.
That night also marked the beginning of a new era of severe storms for the region.
Before May 4, 2003, Pierce City and its Victorian business district did not change much day to day. That’s one reason people say they liked to live here. The town had what it needed to support its nearly 1,400 residents.
But at 6:45 p.m. that fateful Sunday, Pierce City was changed forever by a powerful F-3 tornado that claimed one life, destroyed 81 houses and left the historic downtown in shambles. All but a handful of the town’s 45 businesses downtown were destroyed, which meant Pierce City also lost much of its tax base. Virtually all of the essential businesses needed to support residents were blown away, including the grocery store, drugstore and hardware store.
Afterward, Pierce City set about reinventing itself.
Though it lost much of its historic character that night, it is much better organized than it was before the storm, some say.
But one thing has stayed the same: Pierce City does not change much from day to day even now.
“You know, Pierce City has always been that way,’’ said Jim Moore, a Pierce City architect who helped the town recreate itself into a more livable place after the tornado.
“It does not change from year to year. It stays about the same. Because of the tornado, it really improved a lot of the aspects of the town,’’ he said. “We have a really nice supermarket now. It’s twice as big as the old one. We have a new library, a new drug store and a new senior citizens place.’’
The town’s population fell from 1,385 in 2000 to 1,292 in 2010, a 6.7 percent decline. But, Moore said: “The town has had a population of 1,200 to 1,300 people for as long as I can remember.’’
After it recovered from the tornado, it went back to the town it was before — a place where change doesn’t happen that much.
“There’s nothing — no big industry here — to spark it to do anything great,’’ Moore said. “It just plugs away. People live here and work somewhere else, and it’s a nice place to raise your kids.’’
The tornado destroyed the town’s hardware store that was operated by the late Gene Kluck for 65 years.
Mark Chapman, Kluck’s grandson, said, “Friendly Supply was built back within a year or so by my grandfather, who was 80 years old. People questioned him building back at his age. He said it was important to him. He felt like the town needed it, and it did.
“It was really good for several years post tornado. We had a lot of economic activity with regard to rebuilding. But the downturn in the economy caused things to slow down here. It leveled off, but it’s on an uptick now.’’
Chapman said spring is the beginning of the construction season, but his favorite time of year carries a new attachment now.
“I now know how violent storms in the spring can be,’’ he said.
Doug Thompson, owner of Thompson Family Drug, said, “The newer stores seem to be doing pretty good. Our business is still good, but we will always have the normal woes of a small town. One of them is people being enticed to leave town to spend their money. We would rather they do that here.
“After the tornado, we were out of business for most of a year. The people here found they needed a local business community so they wouldn’t have to drive miles to get what they needed,’’ he said.
Pierce City’s business district took a major hit with the closing of Freda Mae’s, a popular eatery on Commercial Street that gave the town a destination. The property is for sale. But despite that, the town has continued to forge ahead.
Polly McCrillis has opened Bookmarks, a bookstore, at 100 W. Commercial St.
“Pierce City is old-fashioned; it still likes books,’’ she said.
McCrillis said people who travel through Pierce City still stop because of what existed there before the tornado — antique stores and galleries. Though only five of those storefronts remain, those that do, such as Wholly Moley Antiques and The Thistle Quilt Shop, are still benefiting from that legacy. She said Pierce City would do better economically if it had more antique stores and a restaurant to replace Freda Mae’s.
“We were left with just a little section of what had existed before. But, it’s still enough for people to stop,’’ she said.
“We’re still trading on the old,’’ added Norma Bacarisse, with the quilt shop.
McCrillis said the Pierce City area is still home to several artists, who are now participating in the Pierce City Arts Festival. The fifth festival will be held Saturday, May 18, in Pierce City Park.
In addition, a farmer’s market has been created for Pierce City. It will be held in a new city park that is being constructed at the southeast corner of Commercial and Ford streets.
Without a Chamber of Commerce or any marketing, the community is getting the word out that “we’re still here,’’ said McCrillis. “We are a small community of people who care about each other. That is invaluable.’’
At Flummerfelt’s rebuilt Town & Country grocery store, cashier Carolyn Gildea, 77, recalls how she came to Pierce City with her late husband in 1975 from Arizona. The store where she worked was destroyed by the tornado. Her home was damaged, but she never once entertained the idea of leaving Pierce City.
She was reduced to tears when she visited Joplin after its tornado.
“It was awful. I cried all the while I was there. I knew what everybody was gong through,’’ she said. “It broke my heart.’’
Those who experienced Pierce City’s tornado have been brought closer together because of it.
“There are so many nice people here,’’ she said. “They really feel like family. I could not leave that, but I do miss the old town and I do miss the old buildings.
“You know, my grandson came to visit. As we drove through town, I would wave at people. He said: ‘Grandma, do you know everybody here?’ Why, yes I do.’’
Although no official city event is planned, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 200 Front St., will hold a special Mass at 4 p.m. on Saturday to mark the anniversary. The Rev. Peter Morciniec, pastor of the church, said the Mass is open to the public and to anyone from the neighboring cities who helped rebuild.
“We want to celebrate and remember the outpouring of help that we received from all over Missouri,” Morciniec said. “That’s why we are inviting them back to see how their work paid off.”