Rolling down the road, something just wasn’t right. It was the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend of 2003. Four of us were a couple hours into a five-day ride that would take us through the Ozark Mountains, and in to Memphis for some Beale Street blues and a Graceland tour. Then we were going up to Springfield, Illinois for the legendary Springfield Mile. As we approached a rural Missouri town, we knew something wasn’t right. We weren’t sure what was wrong, but it didn’t take long to make sense of it.
Our day had started with mostly cloudy skies and some brief, light sprinkles, but good riding weather. We traveled south from the Kansas City area and were eastbound on Highway 32, just west of Stockton, Missouri. About a mile outside of town, uneasiness and uncertainty took over my thoughts. First, there were shards of paper and scraps scattered across fields and a few trees with missing or twisted limbs. Just barely inside the city limits, we saw commercial buildings and homes with broken windows and damaged roofs. Hints of what lie ahead were now rapidly multiplying. As we continued toward the downtown area, the level of destruction increased and the scene became frightening. On Sunday, May 4 (just 17 days prior to our visit), a severe tornado had reduced Stockton, Missouri into ruins.
First impressions of devastation like this are usually disbelief. The downtown area was in shambles. Large piles of debris were everywhere. There were shells of old two-story buildings, piles of fallen brick and mortar, torn and twisted sheets of tin, and stubs of trees, absent of all their former beauty. Foundations, where homes once stood, were wiped clean. The local telephone facility, one block off the highway, was a tangled and twisted web of cables and steel, leaving the town without any phone service. Many homes and most all downtown businesses were totally destroyed.
We pulled over into a mostly cleared lot at the four-way stop in the center of town. A temporary trailer was set up and operating as the bank. The continuous roar of heavy equipment and the scent of diesel exhaust filled the air. I wandered through downtown, taking photos and watching people work. Dump trucks were streaming in and out. Loaders continuously gathered and moved the piles. The immensity of the task ahead of the workers was evident. It had been nearly three weeks since the tornado struck and their faces displayed both despair and exhaustion. After taking several photos and viewing the damage, we got back on the road. Heading on through town, there were more naked trees, more damaged homes and a church with a long roof so severely bowed that it appeared it could collapse any moment.
Long rides like this give you plenty of time to think. My enjoyment of our upcoming adventure had been numbed. I wondered what it must have been like to have lived through the tornado. Fear, doubt, compassion and curiosity occupied my thoughts. I worried about the families whom I’d never met, but resided there and the impact this disaster must be having on them. With damage this bad, there was most likely loss of life. As much as I tried to look ahead, I was drawn back to those frozen images of devastation.
We finished last year’s ride with many fond memories of the places we visited. Those memories of disbelief and sorrow from what we had witnessed in Stockton remained with us as well. This year, we planned another ride to the Ozark Mountains, but just a brief weekend jaunt. In our route planning, we decided to pass back though Stockton and view the progress. Upon our arrival, what we saw, less than one year later was a great example of human spirit and purpose.
We parked across the street from where we were almost 11 months earlier. I again wandered about and shot pictures from nearly the same locations as I had on the previous visit. The sights, sounds and scents were much different and so was the feeling. One corner building had survived, but had significant remodeling. New buildings were well underway on the remaining three corners, some already occupied and many ready for new tenants. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians continued their work. Walking past the new structures, the scent of sheetrock dust and new paint was evident. Most of the debris piles had been removed. There was a new brick building where the local phone facility once stood and phone service had been restored. Stockton was well on its way to recovery!
Even with all the rebuilding and clean-up, two clear indications of the level of devastation remained: the absence of large trees and the presence of disfigured ones. It will take many years before this town will no longer display the scars of the tornado, but there is no question, they will overcome. As we left town this time, my spirits were much higher. Having bore witness to such dramatically different scenes in such a relatively short period of time, boosted both my confidence in the will of humanity and my belief in the human spirit.
Story & Photos by Nic
For more details on this tornado, visit Disaster News.