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Killer Storms in in Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee

May 5, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For the latest on the tornado situation, I’m joined by Missouri Governor Bob Holden, and Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s storm prediction center, part of the National Weather Service. Welcome to you both. Governor Holden, what’s the very latest in Missouri and specifically do you have any information on the eight people we mentioned who are missing in the situation in Pierce City?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN, (D) Missouri: We now have confirmation on 18 people dead. They’re still trying to look for others, they don’t have confirmation on those yet. We’ve asked the federal government to declare 39 counties a disaster area in the state of Missouri.

TERENCE SMITH: So you still have people who are listed as missing from yesterday?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Yes, we do. And I was down in Pierce City, and Stockton, and other places around Missouri today, and these areas are truly devastated.

TERENCE SMITH: And are they going through the rubble trying to determine if there are people either in the armory wreckage or in that area?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Yes, they are. In fact, they’re basically doing this brick by brick in some areas. These towns have truly been destroyed. These tornadoes didn’t hit the edge of these communities, it found the center part of the city, and just landed and just destroyed it.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it possible that there are people alive in the wreckage?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Of course it would be possible, but they have not seen any evidence of it up to this time. They’ve had dogs in the area, searching the area, and have found no signs of life.

TERENCE SMITH: And in terms of power, has that been restored to most people?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Some of it has been, but it’s so massive in some cases, and the city of battlefield area, Pierce City and Stockton, that it will be a few days before all of it is fully brought back to grade.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan McCarthy, there are reports of continued unstable weather in that area late today and this evening. What’s the situation, any more tornadoes or risk of tornadoes?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, we’ve actually had several reports today of tornadoes. In fact we had an elementary school that was reported hit by a tornado out in Tennessee, so we’re continuing with this threat mostly from Louisiana into Mississippi, Alabama and southern parts of Tennessee.

TERENCE SMITH: And put this into context for us, Dan McCarthy, in terms of the size and scope and unusual nature of these storms. There were more than 80 reported yesterday alone. And yet you say there are even more in the area now. What’s going on here?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, what we’re into is a very strong spring pattern, where we have winds out of the west, southwest and the upper levels of the atmosphere, and we have plenty of gulf moisture and warm air across parts of the southeastern states and the Tennessee Valley. Any time you get that combination with a very strong weather system, you do have a threat for damaging tornadoes and quite a few damaging tornadoes.

TERENCE SMITH: And this can go on, Dan McCarthy, how long?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, we’re looking at a situation for tonight, we have a moderate risk forecast for more severe weather in Arkansas and southern Missouri for tomorrow. Looking at earlier data also indicated that we could have another significant day going into Wednesday. So it looks like this pattern is very favorable for tornadoes, strong damaging winds and large hail for the next couple days.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan McCarthy, there was one tornado I understand was reported to have been on the ground for 30 minutes. Is that unusual?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, that is unusual as far as being on the ground. We’ve had tornadoes on the ground for 65 miles, and when you travel at an average of thirty-five or forty miles that is a considerable time period went these type of storms or tornadoes are called super cells, and these super cells have lifetimes of one, two, maybe three hours, and can produce a family of tornadoes or a series of tornadoes. They can even produce a tornado on the ground and that one tornado dissipates, another one is taking its place. So this is one of those extreme cases that this occurs.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Holden, do you have any estimate at this early point of the damage caused by these storms?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: No. At this stage they’ve been concerned about finding people still alive. But we’ve got all of our FEMA people out there in the different communities, we’ve asked them to get all their information together from the individuals, homes, as well as their businesses, and the next few days we’ll be taking that information and giving to it the proper authorities. One of the interesting things that occurred with people talking to me yesterday, in many cases there was no thunder or lightning when these tornadoes hit the ground. The good news is the weather bureau did an outstanding job working with local officials to give these people as much warning as possible. We would have a lot more damage than we’ve got and a lot more loss of life.

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Dan McCarthy, how much warning were you able to provide, and how long were you tracking these storms before they hit?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, warning is defined as far as a tornado warning in the average lead time for many of the tornado warnings across these eight states were fifteen to eighteen minutes. We also get into a situation where we make everybody aware of the situation by issuing severe weather outlooks out to three days in advance, and these areas were in an outlook out to those three days. Then we issue a tornado watch to heighten that awareness so, that the public stays tuned to local radio, local TV to stay abreast of the situation.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Holden, Dan McCarthy has mentioned the possibility of more storms today, tomorrow, even into Wednesday. What provisions have you put in place or can you put in place to try to protect people?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Well, first of all, we’ve already got the National Guard out working in all these communities, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the local officials. We’ve done a lot in Missouri since September 11 with working with our local responders to make sure that they work together as a unit. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the civil servants we have in the state of Missouri and the job they’ve done.

TERENCE SMITH: You declared a disaster area. Tell us what that means and what difference it will make to the people.

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Well, it will mean that we can reach out for public assistance from the federal government in terms of businesses, in terms of their homes, new housing, a whole host of different things. We might be able to access for the people in these areas. And what we will do is get all that from the federal government, we will do the match at the state level, and we’ll work with these people to rebuild their lives and their homes.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor, I know you were touring these areas today. What was the spirit of the people, what was their mental frame of mind as they looked over all this devastation?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Well, keep in mind that today they saw in many cases for the first time their community that looked like it had been bombed out last night. So they were very concerned. But Missourians have a fighting conspiracy and they’re already talking about rebuilding their businesses, rebuilding their homes and they are really pulling together as a community and that’s what I’m proud of. These are good Missourians; they’ll do well.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan McCarthy, what are you in a position to do now in terms of warning and alerts in the next say 48 hours?

DAN McCARTHY: Well, we’ve already issued a moderate risk for severe storms for parts of Missouri and Arkansas for tomorrow. Any time that an area is in a moderate risk, we need to really hit that area hard in the media and radio and TV in order that people know that they’re in that area, because that’s the time to really be prepared, make sure you have fresh batteries and radios and things like that, have fresh bottled water around, so that you’re prepared for the event of severe weather.

TERENCE SMITH: But you’re saying, Dan McCarthy, that despite the extent of these storms this is really within the realm of what is predictable and expected in the springtime?

DAN McCARTHY: Many of the meteorologists who work severe weather events in severe weather areas are prepared for extreme conditions like we had over the weekend on Saturday and Sunday. Any time you identify a weather pattern with this much warm humid air and these strong winds, we are usually very prepared to extend the word and make sure people are aware of what is happening in their area.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Holden, a final word from you, sort of word to the people perhaps as they look ahead to the next day or two?

GOV. BOB HOLDEN: Well, if they need help, be sure and call your local officials, they will communicate with us and if there’s anything we can do to be helpful to these fellow Missourians, we want to. They have truly suffered a tragedy. People have told me this is the worst series of tornadoes probably in the history of the state of Missouri. So they’ve suffered a lot, and now it’s our turn to come to their aid and be their friend.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Holden, Dan McCarthy, thank you both very much.