Eight years later: Looking back on the Leap Day tornado in Branson

BRANSON, Mo. -- It has been about eight years since the so-called "Leap Day" tornado hit Branson.

The EF-2 tornado on February 29, 2012 took out businesses and homes along West 76 Country Boulevard. No one was seriously hurt, but the storm led to some changes to the tourist town.

"Never did we believe that a tornado would cross Table Rock Lake, come down Highway 76, and go up and down hills and hollows," Emergency Management Director Chief Ted Martin said. "It happened in Branson and it could happen anywhere in the country."

The storm came in the night, as warning sirens blasted through the darkness.

"It was like 2:30 in the morning and there was stuff everywhere, you couldn't even drive," Branson Business Owner Joe Tranchita said.

Tranchita owns and operates a coin shop that is now located about a half of a mile east of where the tornado wrecked his previous store. He says the building was destroyed. However, he was amazed when the small table where his young daughter displayed her drawings at the front of the shop was untouched.

"There was no glass on it or around her table, not one of her little pictures was touched. Not one was moved," Tranchita said. "It was like God just put his hand right over it."

Tranchita decided to relocate and keep his business alive.

"I just thought, well, let's take a look and see what needs to be done," Tranchita said.

Many other business owners were faced with the same decision: to rebuild or move out.

"Hilton Hotel took a direct hit with thousands of windows being knocked out," Martin said.

While most businesses came back, the storm forced some changes along West 76 Country Boulevard.

"Some things, they have taken out completely and other things they have really improved what was there. So, everybody is working to get the town to be the best it can be, but it was a definite change," Tranchita said.

However, while businesses were lost, either temporarily or permanently, emergency crews in Branson say the early warning help saved lives.

"We were having our outdoor warning sirens activated well before that system approached, about the center of Stone County," Chief Martin said.

At hotels, Chief Martin says people took shelter in small rooms, which proved to be safer than hallways.

"The small rooms did really well to provide shelter. We saw the wind damage in the hallways where the shrapnel got into the wall finishings and the guestrooms, but the bathrooms were spotless clean," Chief Martin said.

Still, Chief Ted Martin says getting Branson ready for storms has improved since then, too.

"Our emergency operations plan continues to be improved and be updated annually and approved by the State of Missouri Emergency Management. Then, the hazard mitigation plan, focused on the risks we see in our community and how can we mitigate those risks. Here locally, that integrated warning policy to seek shelter and seek information. Where is your safe place?" Chief Martin said.

He, along with emergency partners, continue to look at ways to be prepared for future storms. He says the city plans to install six new weather stations in the community that can help provide storm tracking and early warnings. He also says they'll soon replace three outdoor warning sirens, which is an about $70,000 investment into severe weather safety.

"That's what the public expects," Chief Martin said

Chief Martin says everyone should make sure they have a storm plan for their home or business. Identify somewhere safe to go quickly as soon as the warning comes in.