Archive for Saturday, May 13, 2000


Storm blasts town

May 13, 2000

View a slide show of tornado damage images.

A storm ripped through Tonganoxie late Thursday night, causing millions of dollars worth of damage to homes and businesses. On Friday, a 4-year-old girl was killed as cleanup efforts began.

The storm, which packed a tornado and up to 110 mph winds, blasted into town about 9:55 p.m. Small hail also was reported.

No one was hurt during the storm. But about 11 a.m. Friday, 4-year-old Kaela Hummburg, Lawrence, was killed when a porch at a house on Tonganoxie's Sixth Street collapsed on her. She was taken by a Life Flight Eagle helicopter to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Her grandfather, Gene Lewandowski, Lawrence, who was on top of the porch, was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

"It's sad," said Tonganoxie Police Chief Kenny Carpenter. "Everyone was relieved that no one was seriously hurt. People were moving forward with the cleanup and then something like this happens.
"It's just a shame."

The child's death was the only one in Kansas or Missouri attributed to Thursday night's storms.

Thursday night's tornado was on the ground for about 18 miles, authorities say.

Aerial charting Friday afternoon of the tornado's course showed it was on the ground for nearly the entire width of Leavenworth County.

"We figure it was on the ground for most of it," said Chuck Magaha, Leavenworth County's director of emergency preparedness. "From up in the air, you can see pretty clearly where it went."

Magaha said weather experts determined it to be a F1 multi-vortical tornado, meaning there was a main funnel cloud surrounded by a series of smaller funnels, all of which tore through the landscape.

The tornado wreaked its share of havoc. More than 200 homes were damaged and dozens of business sustained damage, but amazingly, there were no injuries to report immediately after the 9:55 p.m. twister.

Tonganoxie woke up Friday a bit shell-shocked, but ready to work its way out of the wreckage.

Authorities said it could be days before damage estimates are completed.

The storm apparently hit three main areas: western Tonganoxie, including rural areas and the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds; the downtown business area, including Tonganoxie Elementary School; and an area east of Sixth and Pleasant streets.

On Friday, many Tonganoxie residents and business owners assessed damage, and then began the arduous task of repairs.

Here are some of their stories:

Planning for school

School might resume Monday for all Tonganoxie students, superintendent Richard Erickson said Friday afternoon, hours after a tornado ripped through the city, taking portions of the roof from the elementary school.

"We're planning for school Monday," Superintendent Richard Erickson said.

A crew worked around the clock Thursday and Friday, cleaning debris and installing a temporary roof. Eight classrooms sustained water damage during the storm.

"The roof we put on will keep the water out," Erickson. "I don't know if we can use that part of the building, but we're confident we can have school.

"I'd say there's a good chance everyone will be in school Monday."

The worst scenario, the superintendent said, is that the junior high and high school resume school Monday and the elementary school is back in session Tuesday. The school year ends Friday.

The high school is still planning to host the Class 4A regional track meet next Friday even though the facility scoreboard was lost in the storm.

"We can run the meet without a scoreboard," Erickson said. "Our plan is to proceed ahead with the meet."
Erickson assessed the damage Thursday night, minutes after the storm, and came to a quick conclusion that things could have been far worse.

"We came out of it much better than I thought," he said. "We're fortunate to have had such a destructive storm and not to have as much damage as we did. The kids weren't here and nobody got hurt. We are very fortunate."

At Tonganoxie Elementary School, principal Jerry Daskoski toured the building Friday, pointing with his flashlight to water-soaked floors.

"We need to get this water up or this tile will start to curl on us," Daskoski said.

The roof on a refrigeration unit outside the school was gone and the power was out Friday morning, raising concerns about food stored inside. The perishables were moved to Tonganoxie High School.

"We'll lose all that food otherwise," Daskoski said.

Greg Leslie of The Garland Co., who had designed the school roof, said two sections had blown off one on the south side, the other in the middle of the school.

"We've got contractors on the way," Leslie said, adding a temporary roof should be in place by today.

Church demolished

On Friday morning, Herman and Waneta Karriker greeted friends and members of the Assembly of God church, 128 E. Sixth St., with tears and smiles outside, rather than inside the sanctuary.

Behind them, the church was a mass of rubble, the top floor sunken into the basement and the roof shifted about dozen feet off the structure.

Herman Karriker has been pastor since the church was built more than 30 years ago.

"We hear of churches that things like this happen to," Waneta Karriker said. "But you never think it's going to be your own."

Herman Karriker said he didn't know where parishioners would meet for worship now. But he did say the church would continue.

"We have insurance," he said. "We will rebuild."

Marie Rhudy, a 35-year member, cleaned the church on Thursday, in preparation for Sunday's Mother's Day service.

"It just makes you sick," she said. "I think maybe it's a wakeup call from God that people better get their acts together."

Rhudy even opened the basement door. All she saw was water.

"I didn't go in," she said. "I guess the Lord knows all about it. Everything is just a wreck."

New restaurant damaged

Matt Bichelmeyer's new steakhouse was booked for Mother's Day. Now, Bichelmeyer is concerned when he'll reopen his 1-month-old business. His biggest worries were losing $3,000 to $4,000 worth of food because the power was out, and the loss of his computer system.

When the storm headed toward Tonganoxie Thursday night, Bichelmeyer had customers in the restaurant. Customers fled, leaving food on plates. Bichelmeyer's workers went home. He and his brother remained behind.

"We shot down to the basement," Bichelmeyer said. "We held the door closed. It was trying to pull a vacuum on the door."

The storm tore an air conditioning unit off the roof. Water poured into the restaurant.

"It sounded like a rainstorm inside the building," Bichelmeyer said.

Hardware store loses roof

At Pezl's True Value Hardware, owner Don Pelzl assessed damage: the awning ripped off the front of the building, a hole in the west side of the roof, which let water pour onto electrical products.

"Do you have a 10,000-square-foot tarp?" Pelzl joked with people who came into the store, asking what they could do to help.

More roof damage

Roger Shilling opened the doors of his electrical shop Friday morning to find water leaking from the wood-beam ceiling and puddles everywhere.

He wasn't surprised.

On Thursday night a tornado ripped through Tonganoxie taking with it, among other things, the roofs for both his shop and nearby maintenance garage. A crew worked Friday to remove his shop's roof from the roof of Lenahan's Hardware Store.

Meanwhile, the roof of his maintenance garage was badly mangled by the high-speed winds and will have to be replaced. Shilling estimates the damage at $50,000.

"It could have been worse," he said. "No one got hurt. We can rebuild, get the water out and get on with life and three months right now, you won't even know we were in a tornado."

At this point that seems hard to believe. This storm left its mark. As Shilling walked about his buildings, he learned just how powerful a tornado can be.

For example, in the rock wall on the back of his shop, large slivers of wood were lodged into the wall when they hit it at high velocity during the storm.

On the maintenance garage roof are three automobile tires, which Shilling said weren't there Thursday afternoon.

"I have no idea how they got there," he said.

Help from outside

"We've issued a call to expand to other law enforcement agencies," said Burdel Welsh, Leavenworth County undersheriff, who lives in Tonganoxie.

Among the agencies that Welsh said arrived in Tonganoxie on Friday were: Lawrence police department, Lake Quivira police department, Kansas City, Kan., police department, Lansing police department, Lawrence police department, Leavenworth police department, Kansas Highway Patrol, Leavenworth County sheriff's department and the Douglas County sheriff's department.

"They're being assigned to traffic check points, where they're helping restrict flow into the area," said Welsh. "And they're helping ease the movement of trucks and vehicles who are here to help."

In addition, the Kansas National Guard was called to help and was to arrive between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday.

This perimeter was established: Village Street on the east; Hubbel Hill on the west; Washington Street on the south; and U.S. Highway 24-40 on north.

"We're trying to reasonably admit residents, business owners and people who are helping them," Welsh said. "Now, obviously, at dark, we'll have to take another look at this situation and tighten it up."

Life and death

Pieces of shattered barns decorated the graves at the top of Hubbel Hill after Thursday night's tornado.

Throughout the 100-plus-year-old cemetery, terrorizing winds wrapped barn-door sized swaths of tin around tombstones and tree trunks.

Friday morning, cemetery visitors were plentiful. Sarah Pape and Teresa Pape walked along, looking for granite flower vases that the storm seized from the graves of their mother and sister.

As 2-year old Caitlin Breuer scampered at their sides, the women located one of the urns about 30 yards away from the graves.

Here, at the cemetery overlooking the town devastated by a tornado, life and even death intermingled.

All but the house

About an eighth of a mile west on Kansas Highway 16, family and friends helped Florence Somers clean up the tornado trail around her farmstead.

"Lost it all except for the house," said Somers' son, Kurt Somers.

Three barns, a silo and a garage were destroyed, he said.

But Somers and Virgil Fields, who were in the house during the storm, were fine.

"We heard a few pebbles of marble-sized hail," Somers said. "Then there was popping, cracking and banging sounds and we took refuge in the bathroom."

Somers, who usually keeps an eye on the weather, said this storm took her by surprise.

"It was so sudden," she said.

Although the tornado destroyed most of the farmstead, her house was basically untouched.

The fusebox, a storm door and a few broken windows were the damage. Somers seemed to dismiss the chaos that surrounded her home.

"We're just very grateful that we're still alive," she said.

Congregational Church

Elsie Ulmer, wife of Congregational Church minister, the Rev. Jack Ulmer, picked up debris from the church yard. The west side of the church had been pummeled by debris flying off the elementary school roof. A garage behind the church was demolished. The porch on the parsonage next door was damaged as the Ulmers huddled in their basement.

"God was looking over us," Mrs. Ulmer said. "We've got toys, dolls and trucks in the alley from somewhere. We don't have children."

Watch for storm troopers

Betty Kirby of Farm Bureau Insurance issued this warning to people whose property's been damaged: Know who you are hiring to repair damage.

"Please, know who you're hiring," Kirby said. "Ask us. People in a small town know somebody. Use somebody local."

Kirby said many "storm troopers" sweep into disaster areas, trying to make quick money on other people's misfortune.

"We're getting lots of phone calls," Kirby said. "They're calling the insurance company like crazy, remodeling, roofers, siding. Don't use them. Use someone you know. Why would I use someone from Odessa, Missouri, when I'll never see them again."

Jeanene Goodwin of Stewart Roofing, Basehor, suggested calling the Better Business Bureau or the state fraud department.

Cable outage

Representatives of World Net Cable, the new owners of the local cable television service, said 40 percent of service in Tonganoxie was without service.

"We're patching it right now to get people up and running," said co-owner Dan Simons. "We want to get people on as soon as possible."

Sunflower Cablevision will be giving away coolers and ice at Tonganoxie Fire Station, according to Patrick Knorr, general manager at Sunflower Cablevision, Lawrence.

On the job

A pile of photos in Larry Shepek's office documents some of the financial impact of Thursday's tornado. Shepek was one of many Tonganoxie business owners working a long day Friday with an equally long weekend ahead.

"I got here at 6 this morning. We had all kinds of messages waiting for us," Shepek said. "I anticipate we'll be open at 8 tomorrow." Shepek said seven adjusters were on-site for his firm, Laming, Tice & Shepek. He anticipated three more helping out during the weekend.

By 1 p.m. Friday, his company had already handled almost 100 claims. The storm damage varied from wind to actual tornado to hail. "For an F1 (National Weather Service rating) storm, this was pretty heavy damage," Shepek said.

To make things easier for automotive claims, the company was offering drive-up estimates Friday afternoon.

Additionally, his adjusters were out with laptops visiting homes.

By 8:30 a.m. Friday, State Farm adjusters from Kansas City were arriving. "We watched the news and knew we where we were going (Friday)," said Amy Hill from State Farm.

Even businesses that might be called competitors were banding together. At Laming, Tice and Shepek, 291 U.S. Highway 24-40, by 8 a.m. Friday, two insurance companies had joined forces.

The Mills Insurance Agency, owned by Diane Bretthaur, both Safeco insurance carriers, and Shepek's insurance business were running, at least for a while, side by side.

Shepek said Bretthaur's business, located at 304 West St., was damaged by the storm.

"The Mills Agency has moved into our office temporarily," Shepek said. "We've had all their phones call-forwarded to our operation, so we're in good shape."

But the records were still stored at the Mills Agency, Shepek said they could be looked up on computers in his office.

Disaster relief

Within hours of Thursday's storm, disaster relief had arrived in Tonganoxie. The American Red Cross set up a shelter at Tonganoxie High School Thursday night but shut it down after determining it wouldn't be needed.

By 12:30 a.m. the Salvation Army was at the Leavenworth County Annex giving out free food and drinks to paid and volunteers dealing with the aftermath.

"The call came from Leavenworth that we were needed," said George Eis, a Salvation Army volunteer from Atchison. "We'll be here as long as necessary."

Eis said while he didn't enjoy the human aspect of disasters, he truly enjoyed helping people. "I've done this for four years and I'll do it as long as they'll let me," Eis said. Early Friday morning, the four volunteers from the Salvation Army fed 55 people at the Tonganoxie fire department. Throughout the day, tired city personnel and hungry residents lined up for free sandwiches, chili dogs, soda, Gatorade and chips.

There was no shortage of goodwill in town Friday. At the fire department, local residents brought sandwiches and snacks for the fire crew. Two units from Leavenworth were called to stand by at the fire department.

Frances Colonna, of the American Red Cross, Leavenworth, came to Tonganoxie Thursday night laden with cots and blankets in case anyone needed shelter. Early yesterday morning she was back, surveying the town with John Franiuk, mayor.

"Last night we had five or six volunteers here," Colonna said. "We also have people coming here to do damage assessments."

The Red Cross planned to provide Friday's lunch for volunteers and the city fire department. "It's hard to find a restaurant or fast food place on short notice that will do 150 lunches for you," she said.

Prison aid

Volunteers young and old came to Tonganoxie's assistance, cleaning up in the aftermath of the storm.

Some help arrived in buses, from the Lansing Correctional Facility.

Michael David, administrative officer, said about 40 prisoners and four officers came to help.

"We're part of this community and we wanted to help out," David said. "At daybreak I was at the office and called the city administrator. He said he'd love to have us."

David said the LCF doesn't bring prisoners to help unless they're wanted.

Robert Yeaton, the LCF officer in charge of outside work detail, said communities sometimes are wary about prisoners working in their neighborhoods.

"But most people appreciate it," he said.

As a dozen prisoners wielded chainsaws and axes, tackling the downed limbs in her front yard, Opal Kerns, 321 E. Fifth St., said she appreciated their help.

"It was a surprise," she said. "I just walked outside and there they were this is great these guys coming in like this."

The prisoners, David said, are low-risk, minimum-security inmates.

Yeaton said they seemed to welcome the chance to help clean up Tonganoxie.

"Most everybody out here is enjoying this," Yeaton said. "They like the idea of helping out a community, particularly in a disaster-type situation."

The inmates came with state-provided chainsaws and other equipment, and the cost was minimal for LCF, said Yeaton.

"A little bit of gas to run the chain saws and a little bit of gas to get here," he said.

David said LCF plans to continue helping through the weekend.

"After all, the majority of our staff lives in Leavenworth County and I'm sure we must have people who live in

Tonganoxie," David said. "The prison is part of the community and we're here to help."

In the basement

Jo Ann Ferguson, a First State Bank and Trust employee, weathered the storm in her basement, surrounded by family.

"We did hear the train sound," she said of the tornado. "It was very vague, very quiet, but we did hear it."

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