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Nine confirmed dead; Roberts vows quick federal aid

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 5, 2007, at 3:13 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, at 5:31 p.m.

— Rescue operations in Greensburg were suspended at 8 tonight as a curfew goes into effect in the town where eight of the nine Kansans died in a Friday night tornado.

Officials said the ninth victim was a sheriff's deputy killed in Stafford County.

Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for the Kansas adjutant general's office, said dozens of people were injured.

"We have reports from local hospitals indicating there are about 16 critically injured and another 50 that were being treated at area hospitals," Watson said. "But the numbers continue to change."

Watson said 40 National Guardsmen from Wichita and Great Bend are in Greensburg today and were planning to help enforce the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and U.S. Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt were on the ground in Greensburg to survey the damage and work with survivors.

The three said that they, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, had sent a joint letter to President Bush asking him to declare a federal disaster area, making federal emergency funds available.

"This will not be any Katrina kind of disaster," Roberts said. "We will take care of the people and we will take care of the cleanup."

Greensburg has been devastated. The hospital, the 911 center, the high school and the grade school were destroyed, as were much of the town's residential and commercial areas. The town has about 1,400 residents.

Tod Bunting, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard, said relief efforts focused on finding people in the rubble, keeping people from drinking tap water and trying to restore power.

Traffic into and out of town remains restricted. Traffic westbound on U.S. 54 is being diverted at Pratt.

Roberts said state and national leaders were all engaged in coordinating relief efforts. He said Brownback and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius would be on the ground in Greensburg tomorrow.

The public is being asked not to attempt to bring supplies to the disaster zone. Anyone wishing to help can contact the American Red Cross in Pratt to learn what is needed and how it can be delivered. The phone number is 620-672-3651.

The tornado that hit Greensburg, about 110 miles west of Wichita, was one of several spawned by a supercell thunderstorm that traveled through western and central Kansas.

"We'll rebuild," said Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt, who lost his home. "It'll take time, but we'll rebuild this city. It's a scary thought, the number of homes that were destroyed."

Utilities -- water, electric and gas -- are all shut off, and Hewitt did not know when they would be back on.

Vicki Weaver sat at the county's only bar, candles flickering and a camping lantern illuminating the spider-webbed windows. Then the medics came in. They said they needed to use the Bar H Tavern as a makeshift morgue.

They didn't know how many bodies might be found among the splintered remains of this town. Then came the first, unloaded from an ambulance and laid alongside a pool table in a room that had been mostly cleared in expectation of the worst.

Weaver sat in disbelief in front of a line of half-empty drinks--some perhaps from earlier in the evening, others non-alcoholic ones to refuel the thirsty.

"Everybody came here for a good time," the short-haired 54-year-old bartender said. "Now for it to be turned into a morgue is hard to fathom."

Almost all of Greensburg was hard to fathom for residents who wandered the littered streets in shock as flashing lights and spotlights illuminated mashed two-by-fours and crumbled concrete.

Ted Lesperance and Tammy Wittig, brother and sister, sat on a corner just a few blocks down form the bar-turned-morgue petting their dogs.

Lesperance was hustling to get Wittig down to the cellar as the sirens blared and the tornado neared. He dived on to Harley, the rottweiler, Wittig said.

As she explained, Dusty Herring rolled up on his minivan cab. He'd already taken three loads of seven about 15 miles east to the Haviland High School gym, where the American Red Cross set up cots and began collecting names to help family members find each other.

"We do what we can," said Herring, who drives for Stagecoach Taxi out of Dodge City.

About 30 minutes earlier, people had been coming by the busload to the gym in Haviland.

Bernard Taylor, a 74-year-old wearing a blood-stained shirt, sat on the bleachers holding a baby. The blood came from his roommate, who was struck in the head but wasn't seriously injured.

"At least we lived through it," he said.

He, the woman he lives with and her two daughters had scrambled to the basement once the wind started ripping unusually hard.

"All of a sudden it felt like my eardrums were going to blow out of my head," he said.

He heard his house being torn apart.

When he came out of his house at 324 Oak St., "it looked like a war zone," he said.

The National Weather Service in Dodge City said the area from Greensburg to the northeast was hit my multiple tornadoes spawned by the same supercell thunderstorm.

"It was one of those classic, cyclic supercells," said Michael Lacy, a weather service meteorologist in Dodge City. "One tornado would develop, mature, and then bend to the north as it weakened" and then another tornado would develop.

"That happened over and over."

School buses lined up in town to take people to shelters the Red Cross set up in Haviland, about 12 miles to the east.

Emergency medical crews, law enforcement personnel and search and rescue teams from throughout southwest Kansas raced toward Greensburg after the twister struck.

"I can't believe the destruction I'm seeing," Sedgwick County Fire Marshal Tim Millspaugh said shortly after arriving in Greensburg to help search for people trapped in a hospital. "It's every bit as bad at the 1991 Andover tornado and the 1999 Haysville tornado."

Contributing: Stan Finger, L. Kelly and Beccy Tanner of The Eagle; and Associated Press

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