ST. LOUIS – Three people were killed Friday and hundreds of buildings were damaged as violent storms with powerful winds, heavy rain and tornadoes tore across southern Missouri.
National Weather Service offices in Springfield and St. Louis received multiple reports of tornadoes from one end of the state to the other, mostly south of Interstate 44, in the hours after the storm front plowed into southwestern Missouri around 7 a.m.
The weather service confirmed at least two tornadoes between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. in southwest Missouri's Greene County, the largest one rated an EF-1. The Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management counted three homes and one business destroyed with 298 homes, 29 businesses and 13 schools damaged. Two students at a damaged high school had minor injuries.
Also destroyed was a fire station in Ebenezer that opened just a year ago. KSPR-TV in Springfield reported that the lone firefighter in the building held onto a water pipe and crawled into a tanker truck for safety.
In southeastern Missouri, two people were killed near Poplar Bluff when a tree toppled onto their sport utility vehicle around 11 a.m. on Missouri 53, Butler County Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Thurman said. The Missouri State Highway Patrol identified the couple as Grover Neeley 59, and Wanda Neeley, 55, of Campbell.
In Dallas County northeast of Springfield, a man died of a heart attack after he and his wife were pulled from their home in Charity by an EF-2 tornado and dropped into a field 75 to 100 feet away about 8:30 a.m., county emergency management director Larry Highfill said. Highfill identified the man as Ted Agee, who he said was in his late 60s or early 70s, and said Agee's wife was in fair condition at a Springfield hospital.
Seven other people in sparsely populated Dallas County were also hurt. The State Emergency Management Agency said 35 homes in the county were destroyed and numerous others were damaged. The weather service said the EF-2 tornado was 400 yards wide and traveled on an intermittent 4-mile path, with winds of 130 mph.
Weather service teams were also investigating possible tornadoes in Howell and Webster counties, said John Gagan, a meteorologist in the Springfield office.
More than 150,000 homes and businesses across southern Missouri were without power at the peak Friday, said SEMA spokeswoman Susie Stonner. She said several hundred homes and businesses sustained storm-related damage, ranging from shingles blown off roofs to total destruction.
The outage figures included 60,000 customers in the Joplin area and 70,500 rural co-op members.
Because of the storms, numerous school districts closed early because of storm-related power outages, Stonner said.
In St. Francois County, 911 director Alan Wells said several people suffered moderate injuries from wind damage at their homes. Roofs were torn off of many homes and businesses. A tractor-trailer overturned on U.S. 67 near Park Hills.
Wind wasn't the only problem. Many parts of the state received 3 inches of rain or more. Flash flooding forced authorities to rescue several people from cars and homes in St. Francois County. Flash flooding and downed trees also closed roads from Springfield through Cape Girardeau.
Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency.
"My primary concern is the safety of Missourians and this executive order makes state agency resources available to help communities respond to the storms," Nixon said.
Nixon planned to travel to southwest Missouri on Saturday to assess damage in the Joplin-Carl Junction area and in the Greene County town of Fair Grove, where the high school was heavily damaged.
In Joplin, strong winds knocked down a big section of KSNF-TV's tower shortly after 7 a.m., crushing a vehicle and damaging two homes. It appeared that no one was hurt.
Keith Johnston told The Joplin Globe he was not at home when the tower collapsed, but his wife and two kids were.
"My wife said she heard the wind come up and got the kids into the closet," he said. "They heard a booming noise and thought the tower fell."
Winds blew out windows in downtown Joplin.
About a dozen homes in Laclede County were destroyed or had major damage, emergency director Jonathan Ayres said.
"It does look tornadic from the surveys we have done," Ayres said. "Right now, we're just trying to help these people salvage what they can before dark."
Flooding also caused widespread problems in Laclede County, shutting down several roads and washing away part of a railroad track. SEMA said three water rescues were reported in the county.
SEMA also reported that officials in Ripley County were reporting major damage to the courthouse in Doniphan.
An air-conditioning unit was blown off the roof of a Wal-Mart Superstore near Kimberling City, damaging the roof.
Fredericktown, about 85 miles southwest of St. Louis, reported damage to several businesses. Another eastern Missouri town, Potosi, reported baseball-sized hail.
Several communities — Joplin, Buffalo, Willard, Elkland among them — opened shelters for those left homeless by the storms.