In the US Midwest, heavy rains, devastating floods and 'then the sirens go'

A pile of debris left by a tornado blocks a road in Jefferson City, Missouri, on May 23, 2019. The tornado was part of a band of storms that raged through the Plains and the Midwest.
A pile of debris left by a tornado blocks a road in Jefferson City, Missouri, on May 23, 2019. The tornado was part of a band of storms that raged through the Plains and the Midwest.PHOTO: NYTIMES

JEFFERSON CITY, UNITED STATES (NYTIMES) - It has been a relentless storm season in the United States Midwest.

First came flooded farm fields and roads across Nebraska and Iowa. Then the Mississippi River rose and rose, threatening towns along its banks. And on Wednesday night (May 22), a series of violent tornadoes tore through the region, ripping apart buildings and darkening whole neighbourhoods.

Even then, another threat was looming: rising waters. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, officials were bracing for some of the worst flooding in decades along the Arkansas River after the Army Corps of Engineers increased the flow of releases from Keystone Dam. And officials were warning of swollen waters along the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois Rivers.

All of it was bringing a new level of exhaustion to a region that has found itself fighting multiple crises through a wet and battering spring.

"All we could think was, 'Flooding, flooding, flooding,'" said Ms Jessica Brown, who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri's capital, where a wide, dense tornado barrelled through on a day when officials had been preparing for flooding from the nearby Missouri River. "Then the sirens go, and it's 'Get to your basement,'" she said.

Ms Brown, a state employee, grabbed her 12-year-old daughter, Angaleah, and fled downstairs, barely escaping the shards of glass that flew through her living room after the windows exploded.

"The whole neighbourhood's destroyed," she said, standing not far from her front porch - the only one that was left on her house by Thursday.

 
 
 

The National Weather Service was investigating 34 reports of tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri on Wednesday as storms moved north-east from Texas along a virtually straight diagonal line into western Illinois.

Three people, including a couple in their 80s, were killed in a tornado that struck rural south-western Missouri, which has been drenched with several bouts of heavy rain and flash flooding in recent weeks.

The storms sent debris about 4,000m into the air in at least one location, radar images showed - a defining feature of a particularly damaging and dangerous tornado.

The storms' worst damage occurred in Missouri, near Golden City and Jefferson City. In Jefferson City, wind speeds were estimated to have reached as high as 250kmh. Golden City is not far from Joplin, where one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in US history hit. The storms on Wednesday occurred on the eighth anniversary of that tornado, which killed 161 people.

About 25 people were injured in Jefferson City, a community of 40,000 people where rescue workers on Thursday searched house by house for survivors near felled oak trees, overturned cars and power lines strewn across driveways. The size of the devastation was yet to be fully understood, but it was extensive.

Ms Loise White, 89, was in bed when she heard the screeching sound. Then the glass blew out of her bedroom window.

Her TV toppled off its stand, clothes swirled around her and the wind pelted her with her own books. "It was throwing each one of those books at me just as hard as it could, whamming me," she said.

"It was just a really mean wind," she said. "And rough." In the end, her car was crushed by a tree. The upper half of her home was gone.

"It's like you just took a knife and sliced off her second story," her son, Greg White, said.

As residents across the region began sorting through the rubble, meteorologists warned of more dangerous conditions ahead. In addition to heavy rain and flood risks, the possibility of tornadoes was expected to last into early next week, as warm air masses from the south-east collide with a cool air mass from the north-west. Tornado-prone storms often form along such intersections, feeding off the variation in the wind direction.

"Everything here is already saturated," said Mr Chris Franks, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Kansas City, Missouri. "We can't take a lot more rainfall, and the forecast calls for a lot more rain early into next week."

The tornadoes came in a period of extreme weather, which has been linked to climate change.

One analysis of extreme weather data found that human-caused climate change was a "significant driver" of 21 out of 27 extreme weather events, including droughts, floods and heat waves. But limited historical information, especially when compared with temperature data that goes back more than a century, makes it hard for researchers to determine whether the number of tornadoes is increasing, or if it is just a matter of better reporting.

A 2016 study in the journal Science found that tornado outbreaks, or several tornadoes forming in the same weather system, were becoming more frequent. But despite the recent string this spring, including one in eastern Alabama in March that killed 23 people, this year's tornado season has been within historical averages, according to Mr Patrick Marsh, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Centre.

In Jefferson City on Thursday afternoon, cars were turned upside down and tossed around at a cluster of car dealerships. The historic state penitentiary, about 1.6km from the state capital, was damaged. And in one hilly neighbourhood, streets were covered in shattered glass, splinters of wood, a powder-blue mattress and a fork.

For days before the tornado, Mr Trevor Grant, a 54-year-old hospital aide, had worried about the threat from the Missouri River, just blocks from his pale yellow house. What might it do to the place?

Then came the tornado.

"I don't know what could be next for us," Mr Grant said on Thursday, looking down his street, covered with gutters, roof shingles and chunks of insulation.