Tourist destination Branson surveys damage

Thursday , March 01, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Severe Weather Missouri

Tim Thress, left, of Branson, and Wake Williams of Omaha, Ark., help carry merchandise out of a...

Laura Bauer, Lee Hill Kavanaugh

BRANSON, Mo. -- Trashed by a tornado that cruised its strip and blew the roofs of its hotels before moving on, this music Mecca is surveying what needs fixing before visitors arrive in two weeks.

While most of the shows will go on, the tourist area suffered damage amounting to many millions of dollars to theaters, strip malls, marinas, go-cart tracks, apartments and bass boats.

Fortunately, the Wednesday morning storms that took three lives across southern Missouri were not the most powerful. Assuming they were tornadoes, they clocked at around EF2 with winds between 111 and 135 miles per hour.

As a result, King Kong still hangs above the Hollywood Wax Museum and the giant rooster outside the Great American Steak and Chicken House was not plucked away by the blast.

"Shows are still playing," said trumpeter Jon Trimble, going to his gig Wednesday at The Hughes Brothers Theater. "Maybe it's even more important this night." City officials said only five or six of the 55 theaters in the self-acclaimed Live Music Show Capital of the World were affected, although parts of Country Music Highway 76 were busy with debris removal.

"We'll be ready in a month," declared one resort worker.

"I think the concern is that people will think Branson is now closed, and it's not. Branson is open," said Tammy Scholten, marketing director at the Branson Landing. "The storm was so sporadic. Some places got hit, some didn't."

The Leap Day twister roared through just before 1 a.m., downing power lines, peeling open hundreds of rooms to the sky, crushing mobile homes like Coke cans, and flattening marinas onto their boats.

One multi-day bass fishing tournament about to cast off Thursday was canceled by the damage to boats and the harbor at Kimberling City west of Branson.

"It's as if the tornado took a tour down the strip," said Cristy Westfall, who was cleaning up her sister's Nature's Sunshine health food store, salvaging what they could. "Seeing this makes me so sad ... but at least there's no loss of life."

Skaggs Regional Medical Center reported that of the nearly three dozen people who showed up, all but six had been treated and released, according to the city's Facebook page.

If it had been full-blown tourist season, the toll likely would have been worse.

Wearing sweat shirt and pants, Janet Dailey, a romance author of more than 100 books printed in 19 languages, was tired. All day she'd been sweeping away glass in her office.

Daily is certain that somewhere in her new book, a tornado will make it into the plot line.

Dailey owns the New Shanghai, which suffered no damage, and the Americana that's opening March 14 with "The Three Red-Necked Tenors."

With even a third of the Americana's roof peeled away, Dailey believed, "Our opening date is still good, and unless there's structural damage, we're on!" She's talked with some other theater owners, who all had the same drive to open their doors on time.

The Branson Variety Theater down the road appeared to be missing a section of a front wall. Dailey was worried, too, about the Andy Williams Moon River Theater.

"I saw some roof problems, and that's not good," she said, explaining that Williams' theater has art masterpieces valued into the millions of dollars displayed throughout its lobby and in his dressing room. "He has a Jackson Pollack that's just beautiful!"

Between 7 million and 8 million visitors come to Branson, but there won't be as many rooms for them this year.

Officials estimated as many as 15 of the more than 200 hotels in the town had been badly damaged; aerial views show one 100-plus-unit motel nearly destroyed.

Only a half dozen of the attractions were beat up, city officials said.

Some, such as Silver Dollar City, the Ozark-themed amusement park that lost its power, was not scheduled to open for two weeks. The Titanic attraction and the Tanger Outlet Mall also were unscathed.

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(The Star's Robert A. Cronkleton and Eric Adler provided information for this story.)

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(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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