Twister's fury tests a town's will to rebuild

Pierce City residents have determination but many firms lacked insurance and faces a tough road ahead.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In this tiny town that is home to the state horseshoe champion, five churches, and zero stoplights, a one-mile stretch of road and storefronts once defined what it meant to be from here instead of the next town over.

The historic white gazebo, the imposing stone armory, the strip of red-brick buildings dating back more than a century - each stood as a reminder of why Pierce City had survived economic hardship and the relentless growth of trees, bushes, and vines that seemed to push through most every corner of brick and stone here in this corner of the Ozarks.

Now, Commercial Street, which residents call "Main Street," looks like a city under siege, a shell of brick, broken glass, and fallen power cables that hang like slack jump-rope from wood pilings.

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Improbably, residents reflect, one of the tornadoes that swept through the nation's Southern plains on Sunday chose their tiny square mile of Earth through which to cut its path, killing one resident and leaving most of the downtown in ruins. The destruction of most every business and building that seemed to embody their town has prompted many residents here to question whether Pierce City will exist in a year, or if it even exists now. Many businesses here were insured, and several say they cannot afford to rebuild. It's a conundrum many small towns across the US face after destruction by a natural disaster.

Sunday's tornadoes cut through many rural areas, and even a few suburban ones, in Tennessee, Kansas, and Missouri killing at least 37 people. In Pierce City, eight people are still missing and it will take searchers a while to comb through splintered debris, a situation hampered by new storm warnings.

Still, many residents say they are hopeful the town will recover. They're buoyed by news that the grocery store will rebuild. A few stories, such as how one woman discovered two kittens alive and well under the rubble, bring a dash of cheer. Now, the citizens of Pierce are having to find new ways to describe what is most enduring about their community.

"There are too many people holding everything together for Pierce City to disappear," says Linda Yonker, whose great- grandparents shopped in downtown Pierce City in the 19th century. "We've all been neighbors for decades, and that won't change."

Much of the shock among Pierce residents resulted from a startling event Sunday morning: The armory didn't hold. Its roof gave way even as people continued to pack into its basement. "I didn't think it was possible it would ever blow over," says Edmund Witt, a retired Army reservist who remembers fleeing to the armory's basement as a child when a tornado swept through.

That feeling of insecurity has been magnified by the destruction of Commercial Street, which stretched four blocks.

The quaint stone and red-brick buildings on both sides of the street were more than a century old and had been recently refurbished, giving rise to the town's booming antique trade.

Now, on the windows of what once was undoubtedly a quiet and serene street, bright orange spray paint has spelled out an eerie warning: "UNSAFE."

The Forget-Me-Nots antique store is filled with smashed glass and shattered furniture. Archer's antiques, the Friendly Supply General Store, and the newly designed Frieda Mae's restaurant have all collapsed. The American Legion Ozark Post 65, which is lined with 15 tiny US flags on each side of the room, is covered with crumbled plaster and loose wires.

Half of the stores on Commercial Street were uninsured, says Doug Thompson, owner of Thompson's Family Drug. Mr. Thompson says he will temporarily lease a new building outside the town for his business but he's not sure if he will ever come back to this building, which has only had three owners since it was first built in 1900.

"Most of these small towns disappear after something like this," he says.

But even as despair hangs as prominently over Pierce City now as the tornado did Sunday, quiet examples of fortitude and grace are spreading.

The American flag normally hung in the city center was taken down Monday morning and anonymously placed inside the gun of a retired tank that sits outside the now-battered armory. "That over there inspires all of us," says resident Dorothy Blinzlow, nodding at the flag.

High school student Tristan St. Cloud cites the hard work of his Boy Scout master, Bill Botzow, whose bad hips have not prevented him from working around the clock to help salvage antiques from a friend's store. "That guy can't even really get around, but he's been out here more than anyone," says Tristan.

After one month on the job, postmaster Sharon Clark saw to it that 80 percent of the town's mail was delivered Monday morning. "People came in here who lost everything, but they still wanted their mail," says Ms. Clark.

The tornado also swept over private homes, lifting roofs and decapitating hundreds of trees, which lay prostrate on the ground, their roots severed a few feet below the lush grass.

Amid the destruction, many residents are clinging to the few institutions that have survived. "The school is still standing, and as long as it's still here, we'll stay," says Jackie Velten, a resident here.

Others, even children, believe that the town's proud history will serve as an anchor. "There's too much history here to go away," says 10-year-old Azia Dunnini, who stroked her mother's shoulder as she surveyed the damage.

A half-sunken sign outside the city limits might best describe the area's state of mind - "Pierce City: Remembering the past ... Working on the future."

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