By Jim Salter and Scott McFetridge
A tornado ripped through southeastern Missouri before dawn on Wednesday, killing five people and causing widespread destruction as the third in a series of deadly massive storms over the past two weeks struck the nation's heartland.
Forecasters are keeping a wary eye out for more extreme weather as this year's early severe storm season continues. The storms have spawned dozens of tornadoes, mainly in the South and Midwest, that have killed at least 63 people. Just last weekend, confirmed or suspected tornadoes in at least eight states laid waste to neighborhoods across a broad swath of the country.
The Missouri tornado touched down around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday and moved through a rural area of Bollinger County, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of St. Louis. Trees were uprooted, homes turned into piles of splinters, and one building was flipped on its side.
Five people were killed and five were injured, State Highway Patrol Superintendent Eric Olson said at a news conference. Residents in the village of Glen Allen said at least some of the victims were members of a family who lived in a trailer along a state highway.
Little was left of the trailer Wednesday beyond its concrete pads and an axle. A large stuffed animal was lodged in the branch of a downed tree, and furniture, clothing and kitchenware were scattered in a field.
Olson said 12 structures were destroyed and dozens more damaged.
The damage was concentrated around Glen Allen and the small rural community of Grassy, which are separated by a hunting area, said Bollinger County Sheriff Casey Graham in a Facebook post. He didn’t immediately release the victims’ names.
Charles Collier, 61, said he saw the coroner’s van drive by with its lights on in Glen Allen, where he owns a storage facility.
“That was a sad, sad sight -- knowing there was bodies in there,” said Collier. “I was just numb, thinking about all these other people, what they’re going through.”
Josh Wells said that the tornado tore half of the roof off his Glen Allen home and pushed in his bedroom wall. Luckily, he fled beforehand with his son to his sister’s home because it has a basement.
“We all ran down and huddled against the wall and my brother-in-law made it down just seconds before we heard the roaring sound of the wind and debris crashing around us,” he said.
While his sister’s home held up, the area reeked of gas because a propane unit was damaged.
Midwest tornadoes have typically occurred later in the spring, but this year’s early spate of severe weather continues a trend seen over the past few years, said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
“Although we will likely have several relatively quiet days after the current weather system has moved east of the U.S., we are entering the time of the year where the potential for severe weather increases and much more of the U.S. becomes at risk,” Bunting said in a email.
Typically, dry air from the West going up over the Rockies and crashing into warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico are what make the U.S. so prone to tornadoes and other severe storms, experts say.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson toured the storm damage area Wednesday and said President Joe Biden had called to assure him of federal help. Local agencies anticipate months of recovery efforts, he said.
“I will tell you, I just know because I grew up in a little small town, these small towns, these counties and these cites will come together to help one another out,” Parson said.
Justin Gibbs, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Paducah, Kentucky, said the tornado remained on the ground for roughly 15 minutes, traveling an estimated 15-20 miles (24-32 kilometers).
Based on early data, the tornado received a preliminary EF-2 rating, packing wind speeds of 130 mph (228 kph).
Gibbs noted that tornadoes are especially dangerous when they touch down late at night or early in the morning, as this one did.
“It’s definitely a nightmare from a warning standpoint,” Gibbs said. “It’s bad anytime, but it’s especially bad at 3:30 in the morning.”
A phone weather alert awakened Bobby Masters, who said debris was slamming his Glen Allen home as he took shelter in his basement with his family. He recalled hearing a roar as the tornado passed.
“I had never heard a tornado before. They say it sounds like a freight train and that is exactly what it sounds like,” he said. “The good Lord spared us, our family and our house.”
Keith Lincoln, 56, also was awakened by a phone alert. He huddled in a bathtub with his wife and 18-year-old daughter and prayed: “Just save us and the house.” Lincoln spent the afternoon patching his roof but was thankful his prayer was mostly answered.
Chris Green, 35, found a small black dog dead in the debris. “I can’t just leave it here,” he said as he and his father buried the animal.
The area is rural, with residents mostly farming, cutting timber or working construction jobs, said Larry Welker, Bollinger County's public administrator. The county's population is around 10,500. The battered communities are tiny, little more than a few scattered homes and businesses.
The storms moving through the Midwest and South had threatened some areas still reeling from the deadly bout of bad weather last weekend. At one point, the Storm Prediction Center said up to 40 million people were at risk in an area that included Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee.
In central Illinois, authorities said five people were hurt and about 300 homes were without power due to a tornado that struck in Fulton County on Tuesday evening. Chris Helle, who directs the county’s Emergency Services Disaster Agency, said one of the people injured was in critical condition.
Helle said the damage was concentrated near the town of Bryant, about 200 mile (322 kilometers) southwest of Chicago. Helle said numerous homes were destroyed, but he credited people for listening to advance warnings and taking shelter.
Officials said another tornado touched down Tuesday morning in the western Illinois community of Colona. Local news reports showed wind damage to some businesses there.