Storms pummel bi-county area

Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Black skies to the northwest over Monett brought ominous warnings to area residents Thursday evening, as reports of Freistatt being pummeled with hail and a house fire southeast of Mt. Vernon on Hwy. FF came pouring in to the Monett-Lawrence County 911 Center. Melonie Roberts/Cassville Democrat

Minimal damage reported in wake of funnel sightings

Bi-county residents were treated to another of Mother Nature's fits of temperament Thursday evening, as the third storm of the 2017 severe weather season struck with a vengeance.

Just into the second week of storm season, area residents postponed their daily activities around 5:35 p.m. when sirens sounded the warning to seek refuge at area storm shelters as the sky quickly blackened and spotters scrambled to the north to stand vigil. The heart of the first wave of the storm moved in from the west, thrashed the area with high winds and driving rain.

For the first time since being constructed in 2015, the Monett High School Performing Arts Center was used for its original purpose as a storm shelter, as more than 300 area residents poured into the facility at the height of Thursday night's severe weather. Rebecca Ramirez, left, hustled into the shelter carrying Hiro Yang, as Walter Branch courteously held the door open upon their arrival. Melonie Roberts/Cassville Democrat

Almost as soon as the first waved moved across the county to the east, the larger storm cell descended from the north, across the length of Lawrence County to the south, crossing Barry County and moving into Arkansas, bringing with it more wind and a lot of hail.

David Compton, Barry County emergency management director, said spotters gave several reports of funnel cloud sightings in Barry County.

"The tightest, most significant amount of rotation was south of Cassville, near Highways 248 and 76 in the Mineral Springs area," Compton said. "The rotation was extremely pronounced.

The Rigalberto Augustin family took shelter in the MHS Performing Arts Center during the storm, bringing their two parrots, Pancho and Corkie. Murray Bishoff/Cassville Democrat

"While we had several credible reports of funnel cloud sightings from spotters, there is no evidence of a tornado on the ground. There were also funnels spotted in Purdy and Shell Knob, and radar indicated several other rotations, but at night, in a rural area, it's hard to get eyes on all of them."

Compton also reported storm damage to a home in the Needle's Eye area, where hail broke windows on the north side of the structure and caused significant frame damage.

"There was still golf ball-sized hail on the ground an hour after the storm passed," he said. "We tried to identify a debris signature on radar but never found one. There was a very pronounced hail signature."

Spirits were upbeat and calm in the MHS Performing Arts Center during Thursday's storm, where around 350 people took refuge. Murray Bishoff/Cassville Democrat

A debris signature is when remains of structures, trees and other impacted items are lofted high enough into the air to register on radar.

"We did not see that [Thursday] night," Compton said. "As we replay the radar, we will search for that, and if it is detected, we'll search those areas for damage and injuries."

The National Weather Service posted a report "by the public" of an unconfirmed funnel cloud at 6:59 p.m. three miles east of Butterfield that resulted in damage to a home. Trees were also reported downed in the Shell Knob area around Scenic Bluff, Old Highway 39 and Stallion Bluff, according to the Central Crossing Fire District.

Monett residents were welcomed to the third storm of the 2017 season with storm sirens and reports of possible tornadic activity at approximately 5:30 p.m. Thursday evening. This photo, facing west on Broadway, tracks the eastward movement of the first storm as it passed over Monett. Melonie Roberts/Cassville Democrat

Compton compared past storm seasons and the multitude of damages suffered by bi-county residents to Thursday's event.

"We were lucky," he said. "Welcome to storm season 2017. We've had three incidents in the first two weeks. This year is starting out with a bang."

The storm rolled into Cassville during the honors assembly at Cassville High School, forcing those in attendance to take shelter in its FEMA building. It marked the first time the high school's FEMA shelter wing has been used for safety in a real event.

Some vehicles in the Cassville area sustained significant damage, such as this one, which had its back windshield busted out by hail clusters the size of baseballs. Julia Kilmer/reporter@cassville-democrat.com

According to Bonnie Witt-Schulte, Lawrence County and Monett Emergency Management director, hail ranged from golf ball-sized in the Pierce City and Cassville areas, to pea and nickel sized in Monett. Some clusters of hail the size of a hand palm were reported.

The biggest storm incident in Lawrence County came at the head of the storm. The first wave, moving across near Interstate 44, sent a lightning strike into a home east of Highway 39 on Highway FF, southeast of Mt. Vernon, resulting in a rural house fire.

Aurora Rural firefighters, responding in mutual aid with Mt. Vernon, sent a tanker truck up Highway K to the scene. According to Rural Fire Chief Aaron Siegrist, the tanker crew, proceeding at around 25 miles per hour, topped a hill and encountered a car in the ditch and a pickup stopped in the middle of the road, with a man standing beside it.

It was tough to tell in the dark where any funnel clouds may have formed, but Purdy schools substitute and softball team volunteer Jamie Holmes shot video from outside the girls locker room at the high school and captured this image when lightning revealed what appears to be a funnel cloud passing over the town. Jamie Holmes/Special to the Cassville Democrat

"They tried to swerve around the truck," Siegrist said. "They dropped the driver's side tires off onto the soft shoulder and it sucked them into the ditch and rolled the tanker."

It was not clear to dispatchers what had happened and it appeared the truck had been blown off the road by the storm. Dispatchers sent additional firefighters from Miller and Miller Rural, Marionville, Aurora and Halltown to assist.

The tanker truck was taken to Springfield on Friday for a damage assessment. Siegrist said that although firefighters encountered significant rain and wind, no major storm damage was found.

"The storm came in at a different angle than usual, not up from Seneca," said Aurora Fire Chief Robert Ward. "We were listening to what was reported in Monett, and that gave us a five minute heads up as to what to expect. We had no internal damage in the city."

The storm coincided with the Monett Chamber of Commerce banquet at the Scott Regional Technology Center. The social hour broke up as attendees scurried across the parking lot to the performing arts center, which had its first initiation as a FEMA shelter for a real event.

Jay Jastal, school resource officer, roamed the hall, bullhorn in hand, generally pleased with how the facility was used. He noted approximately 350 people had gathered, a number boosted somewhat by the Chamber event. Previously, it was unclear how many people might come to the PAC during a storm. Some even came with pets.

According to reports, others headed to the Chamber banquet stopped at the FEMA shelter at Monett Middle School. Others still arrived to use the Monett Justice Center. Public storm shelters open automatically when the tornado sirens sound.

National Weather Service authorities toured Barry County on Friday morning to assess damage in the Butterfield and Seligman area.

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