Family, friends and even strangers help clean up after Linwood tornado demolishes dairy
Lawrence firefighter Rob Leach spoke into a portable radio microphone, giving instructions to a group of volunteers to move from the pasture to a cornfield as they picked up debris Saturday morning at Lin-Crest Farm.
“My fire department training has come in handy,” he said.
Rob’s family dairy farm, 3 miles north of Linwood, was demolished on May 28 by the EF-4 tornado that cut a 32-mile path of destruction through Douglas County and Leavenworth counties.
Eleven days after the life-changing storm, Rob and his wife, Lisa, coordinated Saturday’s cleanup, with the help of about 100 volunteers, including folks from the show-cattle circuit, colleagues from work, 4-H club members and even strangers.
The family lost most of the buildings on the farm, including the dairy parlor. Their house and vehicles sustained damage, but the emotional toll came from the loss of 16 prized Jersey and Holstein dairy cows.
Clover and Midgee, their best show cows who made names for themselves at state fairs from Kentucky to Kansas, were among the casualties of the storm. Before the tornado the Leach family had 124 cows, and 45 were used for milking. Several of the animals died in the storm, and 10 more sustained such severe injuries that Rob was forced to shoot them.
“My rule was I had to put them down (personally),” Rob said, as he slowly drove past the ground where he had buried part of his herd.
The day of the tornado, Rob said they started milking early because strong storms had been predicted.
“The phone saved our lives,” Rob said, of the emergency warning alert system. “We had about a 24-minute warning. We let the cows out of the dairy barn, leaving eight in a holding pen, assuming we would be right back.”
Rob’s sister, Chris Hahn, who works with them at the dairy, hurried home. Rob and Lisa’s three daughters were in Wisconsin at the time. The family in Linwood had time to prepare and seek shelter in their basement.
“It sounded like a jet engine taking off,” Lisa said. “We knew it was right over us. We could hear the bricks from the chimney hitting the roof.”
Hahn made it home safely but lost her home and a shed in the tornado.
For 20 years, Rob has been a firefighter and is currently with Lawrence Fire Station No. 2 on Harper Street. He has been off work since the storm, but he plans to return Wednesday.
He said it was too soon to know the monetary cost of the storm and the loss of animals.
“The cows are at the mercy of the markets,” he said.
In the days immediately following the storm, Rob used heavy equipment to move massive piles of rubble.
“We’ve burned a hundred loads, and there are many more to go,” he said. Six ponds on the property will have to be drained to remove the debris that landed in them. The cows like to wade into the ponds and could be cut by the metal.
Saturday’s objective was to go after smaller debris on the property. A small army of helpers carried 5-gallon buckets and moved slowly through tall grass. Even the smallest nails needed to be picked up.
“More than anything, we are trying to find things that would hurt the cattle,” Rob said. “If they ingest the metal, anything, a nail, wire, tin, it can kill them. Hardware disease is a real problem.”
The family harvests all of their fields for feed. A sharp object could be picked up by the baler and be fed to a cow.
Zeb and Christine Sanders, of Basehor, were among the volunteers who came out to help. Christine knew the family through the Leach daughters, whom she had taught. Some of the random items they discovered included the head of a mop and a piece of an electric toothbrush.
Lisa held up a book cover, “I Wonder Why The Wind Blows,” that a helper had picked up in a field.
“That was not our book,” Rob said.
Others found a strip of metal from a sliding glass door and small plastic pots, a sprinkler to an irrigation system. The crew scoured four fields. Several adults carried tired children on their shoulders.
“This is one of the worst damaged areas in the path of the tornado,” said Ken Keiter, Eudora’s fire chief.
The organized workday included a first-aid station, stacks of bottled water, sunscreen and work gloves. Volunteers were treated to a catered lunch.
“They are good people,” said Kathy LaScala, a friend from Eudora, of the Leach family. “They would be the first ones to help if the situation was reversed.”
With so many volunteers, a lot had been accomplished, Rob said. But he still imagines he’ll be picking up debris the rest of his life.
He wasn’t certain they would reopen the dairy.
“There are so many decisions to be made,” he said. “I don’t know if we have the strength to do a fully functioning dairy again. It’s too soon to say.”