Archive for Wednesday, May 9, 2001

A year later: Remembering storm’s fury

May 9, 2001

Florence Somers and Virgil Fields didn't see the tornado approach.

"We heard the hail," Somers said. "The lights went out, the air pressure dropped, Virgil's ears popped, and I felt the pressure change in my chest."

Their house has no basement, so they rushed to the bathroom, taking a flashlight with them.

Top, this photograph of Florence Somers' farmstead west of
Tonganoxie was made in 1989. Middle, this photograph shows Florence
Somers' property as it appeared the day after the May 11, 2000,
tornado. Bottom, in this photograph, made a few weeks ago, the
damage to Florence Somers' property still is evident.

Top, this photograph of Florence Somers' farmstead west of Tonganoxie was made in 1989. Middle, this photograph shows Florence Somers' property as it appeared the day after the May 11, 2000, tornado. Bottom, in this photograph, made a few weeks ago, the damage to Florence Somers' property still is evident.

Seconds later, when they closed the bathroom door, they heard the shatter of glass, the splinter of tree limbs, the pounding of debris against the house.

And the wind.

"There was the terrible roar, and there was a roar in the bathroom drains," Somers said. "I couldn't tell whether the sound was from the bathroom drains or if it was the freight train it was impossible to describe it."

She doesn't recall how long the storm lasted.

"It was either a lifetime or five minutes," she said.

In the minutes after the storm, Somers says she was grateful for the night's darkness and the power outage.

All she had to illuminate the damage was a single flashlight beam.

"Fortunately, I didn't have to see it all at once," Somers said. "We could only grasp small portions of damage at a time."

Inside, dirt and pieces of broken glass were everywhere.

"We had to force our way outside," she said of the back door by the patio, which was covered with tree limbs.

Power lines were on the ground.

"We didn't know if we might be electrocuted when we went out," Somers said. "It turned out the lines were dead."

The garage next to the house, a camper trailer, a machine shed, a hay barn, a feeding shed and a storage shed all were destroyed.

Five vehicles were destroyed, including Somers' van, which had been parked in the garage.

The van, with the roof crushed, remained where she had left it, even though the garage it was in had disappeared.

The tornado leveled to the ground a 40-foot-tall cement block silo.

And trees the May 11, 2000, tornado ravaged the farmstead's once-generous supply of trees.

About 20 family and friends showed up the next day, a Friday, to help. By Sunday, the bulk of the trees had been picked up, the glass swept from the floors.

Florence Somers and Virgil Fields likely will never forget the May
11, 2000, tornado that hit their farm, which is west of Tonganoxie.

Florence Somers and Virgil Fields likely will never forget the May 11, 2000, tornado that hit their farm, which is west of Tonganoxie.

Every inch of the house and everything in it was cleaned.

"Dirt and debris went clear through the house," Somers said.

Professional cleaners removed dirt and glass from upholstered furniture and cleaned rugs that could be cleaned. Other rugs were later replaced.

By late summer, the garage had been rebuilt on the same cement slab as the original garage.

A 40-by-60-foot barn was built. In the house, broken windows were replaced.

They picked up debris out of the hayfield all summer.

Today on her drive to Tonganoxie, she sees a reminder of the storm a large piece of metal posed high in a tree along Kansas Highway 16.

Somers said she doesn't know the total dollar value of damage, but she estimated that more than 480 tons of debris were hauled away. "Plus what we burned and what we buried," she said.

The curious thing about the storm, Somers said, was that it hadn't looked like a tornado. In her 35 years of living on the farmstead at the top of Hubbel Hill, she had seen two tornadoes from a distance the 1967 Topeka tornado and years later a tornado that struck the Mini Mart, a couple of miles north of her house.

"We've always been cloud watchers," she said. "And that one last May was not typical."

They had watched the clouds earlier in the evening.

"We saw the big black cloud and the strange lights lights flickering in it," Somers said.

Other weather conditions were conducive to a tornado, she said.

"But it wasn't like other years where there would be a storm and we watched the rolling clouds," she said. "This cloud was just strange, just totally different."

Because of the hail that preceded the storm, and because they were inside the house, Somers and Fields did not hear the storm siren. But Somers said she can usually hear the sirens on Kansas Highway 16, as well as the sirens in Tonganoxie.

There is no underground tornado shelter on the property, although Somers said she has considered the possibility of installing one.

It used to be that she didn't fear storms.

But now, a year after the May 11, 2000, tornado, Somers confides that when storms approach, she's no longer fearless.

"I'm petrified," she said. "There isn't a hole big enough to climb into, or near enough."

Even the wind bothers her now.

Wind storms in mid-April frightened her, she said, especially when doors from a small storage shed blew off and were rattling around on the deck in the pre-dawn hours.

"I just lost it," Somers said. "I got up and started looking around, then tried to go back to bed, but I couldn't sleep, so I just got up and got dressed. Just the velocity of the wind all day was unnerving."

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