By Ryan Richardson
Globe Staff Writer
CARL JUNCTION, Mo. —
Ten years after an F-3 tornado hit this town, there is little to indicate the scale of what happened.
The tornado, on May 4, 2003, damaged 500 homes and many city and school buildings, causing millions of dollars in property damage.
It was one of several tornadoes spawned that Sunday night in the Four-State Area.
That tornado first touched down in Cherokee County, Kan., before hitting the community of Smithfield near the state line and then sweeping into Carl Junction.
It killed one person in Cherokee County, two others near the state line and an elderly couple just west of Carl Junction.
More than 30 percent of the buildings in Carl Junction were hit. The school district alone needed $6.5 million in repairs, and every school on campus was damaged to some degree, with the high school taking the worst of it. The district held some classes in trailers until its buildings were repaired.
Today, there’s a new community center at 303 N. Main St., built in 2008. It replaces some of the city offices that were damaged. A few blocks away there is a new police station, since the previous one was done in by the storm.
The Carl Junction United Methodist Church, where 25 people took shelter that night, suffered a direct hit.
Located at 601 W. Wells St., near the school district’s main campus, the church was a total loss and its congregation was displaced for nearly two years.
Leslie Fitzgerald and her 5-year-old daughter Kennedy were among the 25 people who took refuge in the bathrooms of the church that night.
“We could hear the boards creak and the metal sounded like it was screaming as it was taken apart and I remember my ears popping,” Leslie Fitzgerald said. “When we got the all clear, we went outside into the sanctuary. The roof was gone and the interior had collapsed and it looked like a giant spider web. I remember looking up and I could see the sky and a rainbow.”
Kennedy, now a freshman at Carl Junction High School, said that she had forgotten to take her shoes in the rush to seek shelter and she went into the sanctuary to retrieve them.
“The yellow insulation had been blown everywhere and I thought that they were birds that were killed by the tornado,” Kennedy said. “That’s when I first started crying.”
Despite the devastation to the sanctuary, the Bible placed at the altar was still open to the same passage that was used during the service earlier that day.
Through the next two years, the congregation worshipped in other local churches before moving into a pair of trailers to hold services. The new church, bigger than before, was rebuilt on the same site.
“If anything, we were resolved to rebuild,” Leslie Fitzgerald said. “It is a part of living in the area and there is always a chance that this could happen. But we all moved forward and we rebuilt.”
Residents and city leaders say a mini-renaissance occurred in Carl Junction in the wake of the storm and it helped establish a renewed sense of community and a new town motto: “We were neighbors, now we are family.”
City Administrator Steve Lawver said last week that the city has made progress in the years that followed the storm.
“We had already turned a corner before the storm hit and we were applying for grants for future projects that we knew would have to be replaced over the next decade,” Lawver said. “The tornado just really sped everything up for the city and prepared us in case we ever had to deal with that again.”
Since 2003, the city has added generator hookups to water wells, lift stations and wastewater. Lawver said that the city also has been meticulous in its documentation of property valuation, which will help address issues with insurance or Federal Emergency Management Agency claims in the future.
“We learned a lot from that tornado in how to deal with federal and state relief,” Lawver said. “We’re ready for the storm that we hope never happens again.”
Despite damage to both the city’s fire and police departments, first responders hit the streets immediately.
Jennifer McCall was serving as a dispatcher for the police department that night. McCall celebrated her 10th year of service last October, but said that her memory of that night has stuck with her.
“I heard Officer Brad McDaniel scream over the radio, ‘It’s got me,’ and then there was silence,” McCall said. “We moved into the jail for safety and then once it was safe, we were out on the streets going door to door. Shortly after, other cities had crews showing up to help and we organized outside of the building. We kept going here, despite missing our roof and having no power to the station.”
Officer McDaniel escaped injury during the storm and joined in the relief effort, along with the rest of the department.
“If it happens tomorrow, we’re prepared,” said Fire Chief Bill Dunn. The department spent time evaluating response procedures following the storm and upgrading communication equipment.
“We’ve got shared radios with the police and we will pull together like before to help as many people as quickly as possible. We were fortunate to have responses from people all over Jasper County that night and now that we have experience organizing a response like that, we’re ready for the worst because of the time we spent looking at what we did during that storm.”
When the tornado hit Joplin on May 22, 2011, Carl Junction officials responded immediately.
“It is something that comes naturally here in Jasper County,” Lawver said. “We’re all looking out for each other.”
Carl Junction officials are planning a moment of silence and an 10-year observance ceremony at 6 p.m. Saturday outside the community center at 303 N. Main St., followed by a reception inside. There also will be a photo exhibit.