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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Pleasant Hill MO Struck by a Tornado 40 Years Ago Today

Today is the 40th anniversary of the (E) F-3 tornado that struck the Kansas City suburb of Pleasant Hill MO..

The following is a re-post of my personal recollections of that day- May 4 1977 .... 

*** 1. PLEASANT HILL, MO Tornado ***

On the prior weekend, I had spent that Sunday with a female companion at a pool party at a home of the companion's sister and brother-in-law on Delaware Street in the Baldwin Park area of PLEASANT HILL,MO, a suburban community of (then) around 2,500 people about 25 miles southeast of Downtown KC,MO.. 

I would unexpectedly return to PLEASANT HILL 3 days later and the next weekend, the party's hosts would be cleaning debris from that swimming pool.

Even without detailed weather information now available on the Internet, the author could sense the coming Danger from Weather by a glorious cirrus-filled sunset on May 3rd.

It had been a warm day on an outing at Lake Jacomo ... mid 70s ...with increasing surface winds of a southeasterly component, rapidly-falling barometer and rising dew points.

The sunrise of Wednesday, May 4, 1977 was mostly refracted light ... nimbostratus clouds racing northward ... warm ... around 70 degrees, humid with dew points approaching the air temperature and tropical depression-type south-southeasterly winds, gusting frequently in the 20 to 30 m.p.h. range.

Danger from Weather felt near.

It's my day off as a firefighter/EMT in the KC,MO. Fire Department. Around 11:30 a.m., I pick up a friend from her apartment just blocks south of tornado-famed Ruskin Heights to run some errands.

In LINN County KS, thunderstorms rapidly become severe as they approach southwestern CASS County, MO.. 

As the storms cross the state line, the first in a series of strong tornadoes over western Missouri that day touches down around 11:45 a.m. in a farm field about 5 miles southeast of DREXEL.

While sitting in the car in the parking lot of the Truman Corners shopping center in GRANDVIEW, I watched the dark-bottomed nimbo-type cloud cover racing northeastward - noting a general darkening of the cloud cover south-southwest. 

I switched the AM radio from the country/news station (WDAF '61 Country') off station to "hear the lightning (static)." It's a crude but effective way to monitor nearby storm development (The old U.S. Weather Bureau had a "Sferics (static) Unit" in the early 1950's.). 

Tornadic static sounds like a dozen people with big gravel-filled buckets randomly but constantly pouring the contents onto a tin roof.

Just as we are leaving the shopping center's parking lot, the tornado warning for CASS County is broadcast. 

In mutual agreement - equipped only with a portable 4-channel radio scanner, a mobile Citizen's Band radio and a cheap, 35mm camera with 3 pictures left on the roll, we head south to try and intercept the storm.

The twister alternates from F-2 to F-3 intensity as it skipped perpendicular to state highway Missouri (M)-2, destroying and/or damaging more than a dozen homes and outbuildings. .

On U.S. 71 south of the city of BELTON and with light traffic, I decide to push the fire-engine red 1972 Cutlass a bit past the posted speed limit. 

Even with the overcast, the darkening sky ahead foretold the storm's location. 

South of PECULIAR, an outflow or gust front reveals itself, so I decide it best to pull onto the highway shoulder and allow it's passage.

The thunderstorm supercell with the semi-rain-wrapped tornado move over U.S. 71 just northwest of the county seat of HARRISONVILLE and skirts the north city limits of HARRISONVILLE toward Highway M-291. 

On the south side of a rural road just west of M-291, the tornado strikes and heavily damages several homes, then crosses the highway and takes off the top of a barn.

In bright sunshine and with the darkness of the storm in the proper position ... to our left and ahead ... we exit U.S. 71 onto northbound M-291 in HARRISONVILLE. 

At the north city limits, the cloud cover returns and ahead we see leaning utility poles, then the damaged homes and barn. 

I pull east onto the rural road just long enough to photograph the barn and listen to some bewildered livestock bleating loudly. 

The farmhouse- about 50 feet east of the barn- has only superficial damage.

With rescuers having already arrived at the damaged homes, we continued north on M-291. 

A short distance north of the damage and even though we are behind the tornado itself, we run into torrential rain. 

It is raining so hard I have to turn the AM radio up to almost full volume and 
with the windshield wipers running full speed, a top speed of only 25 to 30 m.p.h. on the 50 m.p.h. highway seemed prudent.

The tornado continues on a more northeasterly track now, paralleling the north-south Highway M-7. 

Now a well- established F-3 multi-vortex, it continued to roll over northeastern CASS County land, damaging and/or destroying farm homes and outbuildings as it neared the southwestern city limit of PLEASANT HILL. 

On an anticipated mutual-aid response, several units from the Northwestern Cass Fire Protection District (now called "South Metro") station in RAYMORE stage on the eastbound lane of M-58 highway about a mile west of town.

As we arrive at the intersection of M-291 and M-58 highways, the torrential rain suddenly becomes a light shower - then ceases altogether. As we head east on M-58, we have yet to see so much as a rotating scud cloud, let alone a funnel. 

The tornado is no-doubt rain-wrapped, but was still well ahead of us. I was thinking now of the hosts of that previous weekend's pool party, for they were both employed by the town's school district. 

Both the scanning and CB radios were useless, I didn't even know if the tornado was still on the ground, let alone that PLEASANT HILL might be hit.

As we approached the hill into the Big Creek valley west of town, I noticed cars and a NWCFPD fire apparatus parked in the eastbound driving lane. 

With no oncoming traffic, I hit the horn and swung out into the westbound lane to pass as one of the firefighters stood on the highway's center line frantically waving his arms trying to warn us of what we already knew was just ahead.

I slowed only a bit as we passed the group, scanning above the treeline as I slowed some more. 

At that moment, we see a semi-sunlit mass of clouds swirling horizontally north to south just ahead and to the right, but STILL no discernible funnel. 

We cautiously continue on a heading to interception at PLEASANT HILL.

Blowing away parts of homes here and outbuildings there, the tornado crossed the southern city limit of PLEASANT HILL at about 10 minutes after noon. 

Moving more north-northeasterly now, the twister crossed Highway M-7 about a half-mile south-southeast of the downtown area and rode along a ridge to the east of M-7, heading for the PLEASANT HILL high and elementary schools.

At that instant- we had slowly entered the dark and foreboding PLEASANT HILL business district. 

To this day, my impression was that we had just entered an episode of the 'Twilight Zone.' It was dark ... no lights whatsoever ... and no movement of anyone or anything on M-58 or surrounding streets. 

The cloud swirl was over the buildings and trees in front, just to the left of us as we approached M-7. 

We sat for a few minutes at the highway intersection and viewed the devastation along the ridge to the east ... tree trunks stripped of all but the largest main branches and structures with various stages of destruction. 

I watched the swirling clouds ... now moving west to east to our left ... and only then realized the high school was in that very direction.

As the tornado's main vortex approached the high school, hundred of students and faculty there and at the nearby elementary school had been pre-warned of the tornado and were hunkered-down in their tornado drill positions in the lowest floor hallways. 

First to get hit by the tornado was the parking lot on the south side of the high school. 

The force of the wind shattered virtually every window in the two-dozen or so cars in the lot, peeled back hoods and trunk lids on some and moved others against each other. 

One car flipped over onto another as windows in the main high school building a hundred or so feet away started to shatter and pieces of the buildings exterior and roof began to peel away. 

At the gymnasium on the east side, the north and south walls are blown down and portions of the roof fly away. 

At this point, a miracle of sorts happens. 

The main tornado circulation veers right - through the open athletic fields between the two schools, mangling and blowing away chain-link fences, bending fence posts and light standards to 45-degree angles, but avoiding a direct hit on either school. 

(A student at the elementary school at the time has her recollection of the tornado HERE.)

Still, moderate to heavy damage was done to both buildings. 

The tornado strengthened slightly north of the schools in a residential area containing Delaware Street, then the vortex continued on for another couple of miles before lifting back into the parent storm near County Road VV.

I fear the worst as we approach the bottom of the hill from the high school and see the damage. I pull the car onto the shoulder and into a large puddle, killing the engine.

With the rotating cloud unrecognizable as a funnel still visible and moving to the northeast, we run up the hill to offer what aid we could.

Virtually every south-facing window in the high school building had been blown out, with many of the several hundred students and teachers in the building climbing out of shattered lower-story windows.

Before we approached the building, I took several photos of the observed damage in the parking lot, then stopped short.

It was deja-vu - the gymnasium had concrete and steel arches - built almost exactly alike the Ruskin High School gym that was destroyed in the 1957 tornado.

Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper E.J. Horne arrived several minutes after we did and witnessed the utter chaos. Attempts were already underway to round up and account for the many dozens of students crawling out the battered high school.

Many headed for the lone police car, some bleeding from cuts by flying glass and nearly all speckled by bits of building debris & insulation.

Trooper Horne listened to whatever information he could get about casualties and radioed those reports back to the MHP Troop A headquarters in LEES SUMMIT.

Around 12:20 p.m. as I talked with the trooper facing and surveying the damaged building, I turned around to look south and see clearly ... a second funnel cloud hanging down backlighted by a clear area in another storm cell.

Trooper Horne jumped in his cruiser and radioed the sighting as I asked students where an appropriate shelter might be located. That was the basement of the First Baptist church, several blocks west of the school.

I yelled for those around the trooper's car to come on and we ran down the hill to my car ... just then remembering the motor had had died when I drove into the large puddle.

With relief, the engine came to life as the half-dozen or so students crammed into and on the Cutlass and we headed without delay to the church.

We arrived in the midst of more chaos as people were pouring into the area of the church by foot and by vehicle. With no parking spaces nearby, I parked in the front yard of a home next to the church and we ran inside.

The church's basement was quite large, from what I could see there were at least two big rooms and a walled-off kitchen. In the one large room inside the door where we had entered stood dozens of adults and kids, many of whom were talking loudly with more than a few crying.

I scanned the many terror-stricken faces for hopes of seeing the hosts of the pool party I had attended, to no avail.

It was then that rescuers brought in two unconscious and appearing to be sandblasted persons on makeshift stretchers of storm-detached doors, laying them down on the floor just inside the door, then leaving.

My friend and I stood in a narrow space between frightened school children and the injured. The crying was starting to turn to wailing and it was involving more of the kids.

It was time to act.

I stood on a chair and in the loudest voice I could muster, asked for everybody's attention. Among scattered sobs, the room became amazingly quiet.

I first asked for anybody with first aid training to come forward, then asked if the teachers and older teens would move the younger children into the adjoining room so as not to view the two bloody and torn victims.

Several persons stepped up to help and we carefully moved the injured on their make-shift stretchers into the closed off kitchen. I instructed my friend what we needed to do for the injured ... considering we had no equipment ... and she calmly helped instruct the others as well as offer her aid.

We monitored the two persons' pulses and breathing - keeping them still until regular EMS people arrived about 15 minutes later and took the patients away.

We had forgotten about the 2nd funnel cloud. One of the medics assured me that it had moved away east of town.

We left the church basement into bright, warm sunshine. We made our way back to M-7 and turned north. Before leaving town however, I decided to turn down Delaware Street to check on the house where the pool party had been held.

"Good God" was all I could say as we approached the house. It had suffered mostly cosmetic damage, but all the houses to the east were much more severely damaged with one house at the end of the street completely blown away, leaving only a clean concrete slab.

Seeing enough, we headed back to M-7 and north - past the police roadblock that had now been set up with a growing line of civilian vehicles, emergency and news crews trying to get into town- and headed back to K.C..

Two persons were killed in the PLEASANT HILL tornado that day ... one in a mobile home near the Highways M-7 and M-58 junction and one in a house in the Baldwin Park area.

Twelve of the 15 total injured were in PLEASANT HILL, where twenty-five homes and 17 mobile homes were destroyed and an additional 56 homes ... plus the schools ...were damaged.

Damage totaled more than $3,000,000.

The tornado's total path was surveyed at nearly 30 miles long with an average width reported to be 500 yards. The storm was officially rated as a strong F-3 on the FUJITA scale.

However, a house at the end of Delaware Street had been swept completely clean off its concrete foundation - that was at least F-4 damage. It had been a newer, well-built brick and wood-framed ranch home and in retrospect, it well may have been where one of the fatalities occurred.

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