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Tornado responders.

WHEN a tornado hit the southern Missouri town of Stockton shortly after 6:30 p.m. on May 5, employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put thoughts of their own losses aside to help those who lost everything.

Hours after the Category F-3 tornado tore through Stockton, environmental specialists, power-plant operators, park rangers and support staff from the Corps' nearby Stockton Dam and reservoir project office emerged from their storm-battered homes to provide emergency service to the 1,700 residents.

"As soon as we realized how extensive the damage was to our office, we mobilized our equipment and manpower and began wading through the rubble," said Rod Hendricks, a natural-resources specialist. "We immediately sent backhoes and other equipment into town to reopen the roadways for emergency traffic."

Traffic was nonexistent in the wake of the storm. Toppled trees, sparking power lines, building materials and storm-tossed vehicles littered roadways, making it impossible for emergency responders to assess the situation. The Corps team worked until midnight clearing the debris from the town's main road and reopening a path for emergency responders.

"The storm had essentially closed the city," said Ian Hafer, president of the local emergency-planning commission in Stockton. "We knew it was extremely important to reopen the roadways as soon as possible and allow ambulances and the fire department access to the scene, but we had limited staffing. We're fortunate the Corps helped make that happen during those first critical hours."

As the sun rose the next day, the storm-caused destruction was in full view. The town was nearly destroyed. The car lot and gas station that stood alongside the town's main highway were piles of bent metal, crumpled cars and debris. Homes atop the town's hills were reduced to mounds of shingles and splintered wood.

Throughout town, residents, including the 22 employees at Stockton Dam, awoke to their first glimpse of the storm's destruction.

"I was expecting it to be really bad," said Donna Butler, a Corps administrative specialist who weathered the storm in a neighbor's storm shelter with her husband and two dogs. "It was just total devastation beyond anything I could have imagined."

After making her way through town, Butler and her co-workers arrived to find their office in a similar state. A pile of bricks and mounds of twisted steel and furniture stood where the office had been. The storm had torn the roof from the brick building, and winds had shredded documents, pictures and brochures.

Trucks and vans once used to patrol and maintain the 50,000-acre dam complex were thrown into a nearby maintenance shed, damaging the building and all the vehicles.

Fortunately, the nearby dam and hydroelectric plant stood untouched.

"I experience the same shock over and over again every time I see this," said office automation specialist Rachael Graves as she made her way through the remains.

Time hasn't eliminated the woes of cleanup workers either. Less than a week after the storm struck Stockton, city officials ran out of places to pile the tons of debris. They looked to the Corps for help.

Local emergency planners asked for land on the Stockton complex to use as a temporary collection point for the hundreds of tons of tree limbs that littered the city. The Corps offered an old quarry for temporary storage.

Although Hendricks and his team continue to support the city of Stockton as the town begins to rebuild, he said the mission of the Corps in the city is clear.

"It is paramount we continue to keep Stockton Lake functioning for the well-being of the local economy," Hendricks said. "When the lake is open and functioning, people come here and spend money. That money will be critical to rebuilding this area."

Annually, Stockton welcomes more than 1 million visitors to its lake, campground and nature areas.
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Author:Frazier, Mitch
Publication:Soldiers Magazine
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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