Archive for Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Shouts and Murmurs: Meeting up with the dreaded tornado

May 7, 2003

Those who attended Saturday night's junior high school's production of "The Wizard of Oz" had no way of knowing the next day would bring a real tornado to the Tonganoxie area.

Sunday at about 3:30 p.m. the sirens sounded. Residents who took to the outdoors saw a wall of gray clouds to the east and lighter clouds to the west dotted with pockets of clear blue sky.

The clouds were animated, accompanied by the growl of distant thunder. Television weather reports predicted Leavenworth County would soon be getting a pummeling -- and it did.

Nine homes in Leavenworth County were destroyed. Numerous others were damaged to the tune of millions of dollars. But fortunately, at least in our county, no lives were lost. That is, after all, what matters.

The funny thing is, after a tornado everyone has a story to tell. Maybe they slept through it, maybe they watched it, videotaped it, took pictures of it, maybe they were in it, or maybe, just maybe ... they did as they were supposed to do and took shelter in a basement.

Monday morning talk in coffee shops centered on the tornadoes. Tuesday morning was like dejvu.

As I write this column Tuesday noon, gray clouds again swirl in the southeast. Thunderstorm warnings have been issued in area counties. A co-worker calls to tell us to take shelter in her nearby basement if need be.

Glancing out at the angry skies, I hope that tomorrow's coffee shop tornado talk will still be about Sunday's tornadoes -- not about some new batch of disaster we might meet today.

We had planned to run this week a photo from the infamous Tonganoxie tornado. After all, the third-year anniversary of the May 11, 2000, tornado is fast approaching.

A reader, Janet Trull, who lives in the east part of Tonganoxie, brought photos from that tornado. One shows her husband, Richard, standing behind their house next to a farm silo.

The Trulls don't live near a farm. The silo, they suspect, was tossed like confetti off the top of Hubbel Hill. Fortunately it did not land on their house.

Although there were more than two dozen tornado-related deaths Sunday in Kansas and Missouri, we are fortunate that there were not more.

Is it thanks to our emergency warning systems, law enforcement officials and numerous other emergency workers and volunteer storm spotters, thanks to the preparedness of citizens, who even if they live in homes without basements have devised wise ways to take shelter? Is it thanks to schools who early on educate children how to take cover in a storm? Is it an innate human fearfulness of something larger and more powerful than ourselves -- than we were ever meant to be?

I have lived in Kansas all my life and I have yet to see a tornado. As we know, there's a vast difference between seeing a tornado and being in a tornado. I wish for neither. But I hope if one does come along, that I have my camera ready.

Thanks to Ken Ketchum for doing just that. On Tuesday morning he brought in "textbook" photos of Sunday's tornado. Ketchum, who lives a mile south of Evans Road on 190th Street, took the pictures of the funnel cloud from his property.

Our thoughts and prayers go to the residents who lost everything they have in this twister that touched down on their neighborhood. Their fear is unimaginable.

Damian Altenhofen summed it up. Altenhofen was in Wyandotte County in the heart of the area hit by Sunday's tornado. He was in a basement-less house when the twister struck.

"I always wondered what it would be like to be in a tornado -- I never want to go through something like that again," Altenhofen said. "When I was in the house I thought I was going to die. I've never felt that helpless in my life."

Tuesday morning, I stopped by the former farmhouse of Bob Fox, located at 198th Street and Woodend Road, about six miles southeast of Tonganoxie.

There on the hill overlooking Stranger Creek, a century-old house still stands -- barely. The two-story white frame farmhouse that has withstood more than 100 years of storms finally met its match on Sunday. The house is battered and bruised, likely beyond repair.

But fortunately for the family of Helen and Duane Newton, who sought shelter in the cellar, the house refused to fall.

As I looked at the closed cellar door on the outside of the house, I couldn't help, somehow, but think about the junior high play of a few nights ago. Perhaps it's from watching the movie too many times, perhaps it's from being a lifelong Kansan, but for a moment there I almost expected to see the cellar door lift, and to hear the soft clumping of Auntie Em's shoes as she came up the basement steps, calling: "Dorothy ... Dorothy ... where are you."

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