Published January 13, 2015
Staring at rubble in her tornado-ravaged hometown, Janice Flehmer lifted her gaze and couldn't believe what she was seeing: The old metal cross on the steeple of First United Methodist Church was crazily twisted, but it wasn't broken.
"Bent but not broken," said Flehmer, who wiped away a tear. "It's a sign we should be thankful for the little things. Thankful for a new day."
It was a bright, cloudless day in Pierce City (search) on Monday after a night in which a tornado damaged or destroyed every building in the 130-year-old downtown. Two people died when the National Guard armory collapsed and the search for missing neighbors stretched on into the day.
There were heartbreaking scenes across the Midwest and South a day after a series of tornadoes, pounding hail and heavy rain.
In Badger, Kan., Charles and Phyllis Ross died when a tornado ripped their trailer from its foundation. Standing in the yard, Jerry Judy said the 80-year-old Ross fought in World War II and wasn't afraid of anything.
"He probably grabbed her and tried to protect her," Judy said of his 73-year-old mother. "That's why they were found close together."
Near Camdenton, Mo., George and Betty Jones were killed by a tornado that cut a path 15 miles long. Neighbor Joe Zucco tried to call them when the storm hit Sunday night, but the telephone lines weren't working.
"When all this went down, I tried to call George and Betty. I didn't think it had been good," said Zucco, who spent part of Monday stringing wire to contain the Jones' nearly 50 cattle and two llamas.
In Pierce City, bottles of carpet shampoo were still stacked neatly in a storefront, but covered with dust after the heavy wind. At American Legion Post 66, the big plate-glass window was gone. But inside, tables and chairs were still lined up for bingo, a green wall clock kept the correct time and 40 small American flags still hung untouched from the walls.
Scott and Lynette Rector tried to hold back tears as they looked at the wreckage of their year-old antique shop and tea room, Freda Mae's, where they had offered candlelit weekend dinners of lasagna, pork chops, steaks and shrimp.
Home offered no refuge. An old church the Rectors restored as their residence had its roof shorn away. Their car and pickup were destroyed.
"It's just too much. But we will work to come back. What else can we do?" said Scott Rector, 42, who moved to town a couple of years ago. "We have built a life here and we want to stay."
The growling of chain saws and the rumbling of heavy equipment could be heard across town as the cleanup began. But some downtown buildings will have to be razed for safety reasons, said Mayor Mark Peters, his forehead sunburned from nonstop work outside since dawn.
Peters led Gov. Bob Holden on a walking tour through downtown and said townspeople emerged from shelters "with dumbfounded gasps."
"It just doesn't even look like our town right now," Peters said. "It will never look like our town again."
At Walnut and Washington streets, some paused to look at the bent church cross that had surprised Janice Flehmer. Shaking his head and smiling Chad Pratt, 56, turned back to the splintered elm tree with his chainsaw.
"I am just counting blessings," Pratt said. "That cross tells me we should count our blessings, even if it's hard to do right now."