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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Survivor deals with post-tornado trauma with journal

BY STAN FINGER
The Wichita Eagle

Editor's note: Megan Gardiner and her family survived a direct hit from the Greensburg tornado. She chronicled that experience in a journal to help deal with the trauma from the event.

"The sirens were going off for about 10 minutes and I was thinking, 'Well, they just spotted one out in the country and it's a false alarm and these sirens should go off any minute.' But they didn't. I was kind of starting to get a little worried... "

Megan Gardiner didn't give it a second thought when she heard a tornado watch had been issued for her hometown on that first Friday in May 2007.

Tornado watches in south-central Kansas are common. It is, after all, the heart of Tornado Alley.

Besides, she reasoned, nothing interesting ever happened in Greensburg, a town of fewer than 1,500 that is more like an oversized family than anything else.

When the school day ended, she went to her job at the Lunch Box. Like most Friday nights, it was busy at the restaurant.

By 8:45 p.m., the clouds were beginning to look ominous -- so bad, in fact, that Megan's boss got a call from her family urging her to hurry home as soon as possible. A half-hour later, Megan took the trash out.

"That was the most scary lightning I have ever seen," she would later recall of the almost constant, intense flashes.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., the tornado sirens began blaring in Greensburg. Megan ran to the front of the Lunch Box and looked out the window.

"All I saw was lightning," she would later write in an account of the evening that was so detailed it would be credited with providing important information for a scientific study of the May 4 tornado outbreak. "It wasn't even raining."

She returned to doing the dishes, but the wailing sirens bothered her. With her boss' permission, she drove home -- praying she wouldn't get pulled over for speeding as she raced across town.

She dashed for the house, terrified she would be hit by lightning before she reached the door. Her father was waiting for her with a flashlight.

"Grab your purse," he said, "and let's go downstairs."

That seemed strange because her father never went to the basement when the sirens sounded. He usually preferred to watch the clouds instead.

Neighbors had joined them in the basement. Two small girls were watching television, sprawled on the big pillow Megan had made a few years ago. A little boy played with her dogs.

"About that time I realized I had a lockbox with $1,000 in it upstairs in my room. My mom said I better run and get it. So again, I really did run. Then I was just scanning my room to see if I wanted to grab anything else. That's the last time I ever saw my room."

A neighbor's friend joined them in the basement, and a meteorologist on the television said that a tornado was on the ground and that it would reach Greensburg at 9:52 p.m. --or in about five minutes, Megan noted.

Hail the size of golf balls began pounding their house. Megan crouched by the couch, grabbed a pillow and blanket for protection, and set her purse and lockbox near her. The electricity went out as the wind picked up "furiously," as she put it later.

Her neighbor's three young children were frightened now, and began whining. Megan sat down on the floor and leaned over to protect herself.

"All of a sudden my ears started to pop really bad. I mean this was worse than going in a plane or diving deep under the water. This just hurt. It was probably one of the worst feelings I have ever felt."

In the back of her mind, she still refused to believe a tornado could hit Greensburg. Nothing, she insisted to herself, ever happens in her hometown.

Her cell phone said 9:50 p.m., and the hail and wind "were just horrible," she later said.

Then, as she grabbed her purse from near the couch and pulled it beneath her, the hail and wind gave way to a deathly silence.

"I bet if someone dropped a pin on the ground you would be able to hear it a mile away. I mean this was freaky. I remembered one of my friends from Pratt who went through a tornado a few years ago said it got so still and quiet and I knew this was it!

"After I got my purse I tried to reach and get my lockbox but as I stuck my hand out, the windows exploded! They shattered into millions of pieces. I didn't see it but hearing it was enough.

"I heard the walls tearing and ripping off into pieces. Then something fell on my left shoulder and I had my head covered with my hands (like the drills we do in school).

"...I decided to brace myself so I took my hands off my head and was on all fours. The sound was like a jet engine going right over us, about to take off. Just hearing the house rip into shreds was horrible."

She realized her mother was shielding her with her own body. Her mother began to scream after something fell on her neck. The roar of the tornado was deafening, drowning out Megan's words as she tried to see whether her mother was all right.

"Oh, my gosh, she is going to die," Megan remembered thinking as her mother screamed.

"What seemed like a lifetime finally came to an end. Then I started to yell, 'Is everyone OK? Dad, are you OK?' He didn't answer so I kept yelling for him. I thought he was dead."

When Megan and her mother yelled together, he finally responded. They didn't move for a while, frightened that the storm wasn't over. When a man yelled from outside the house, they realized the storm had passed.

"Is everyone OK?" he shouted. "Is anyone hurt? I can get you out of here, but the stairs are blocked so we'll have to find a different way out." They began working their way out of the rubble.

"I turned and saw the roof was covering my feet and the wall fell on us... the whole basement was destroyed."

Rain had been falling since the tornado passed. It took 30 minutes for everyone to crawl out of the basement. Nothing was left of their house, and so much debris filled their yard it was a challenge to find a route to the street -- especially in the dark.

They began walking down the street. Megan looked across the road and saw that most of the school was gone.

"You know, you always think it would be awesome if a tornado would hit your school but let me tell you, I was shocked and kind of disappointed."

More people joined them in the street, and the group began making its way toward the hospital. The wind began blasting them again, and Megan scanned the darkness for the outline of another tornado.

An estimated 95 percent of Greensburg was damaged or destroyed by the EF-5 tornado which was 1.7 miles wide. The hospital sustained damage, but people were still gathering there for treatment.

Megan and her family escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.

Eventually, Megan and members of her family spent the night in a camper near Coldwater owned by friends. Using her aunt's car, she went back into Greensburg with her father to pick up supplies from the hospital before it sustained water damage.

"When we pulled into town it started to rain hard. I was worried another tornado might come. We went through town and saw all the destruction. I just couldn't believe it.

"I mean, again, there are no words to describe the devastation we saw. It's nothing like the pictures and TV. In real life it's 100 times worse because you can see everything just shredded and ripped into pieces."

In the days and weeks that followed, Megan couldn't get her mind off the tornado.

"I thought about it every day, all the time," she said.

She dreamed about it, too -- nightmares that would leave her exhausted.

She loves to write, so her parents encouraged her to write out her thoughts, experiences and feelings from the night the tornado hit.

The nightmares went away, and persistent thoughts about the tornado did, too.

"I didn't have to hold everything in anymore," she said.

Megan's account caught the attention of Mike Umscheid and Les Lemon, a pair of meteorologists studying the May 4 outbreak. They cited her account in a research paper about the storm.

"I just wrote down my story, and it turns out it helped them," she said. "It shocked me. I feel honored; I just didn't realize something like that would happen."

Megan is now a freshman at Pratt Community College, and her family lives in Hutchinson. But Greensburg will always be home.

"All my friends stayed there -- it's just home," she said.

She can think back on that terrible night now without triggering nightmares. Instead of dwelling on the most frightening moments, she and her family focus on details that make them smile or think.

The family had several cases of pop in the laundry room, for instance. During the cleanup after the tornado, the canned pop appeared untouched.

But all of the cans were empty, even though there were no puncture holes, no cracks in the seals, no sign they had been disturbed.

"The tornado sucked the soda right out of the pop cans," she said.

The tornado filled her car with debris, impaling the sides with boards that were turned into spears. Yet it spared several fragile family keepsakes, such as a pair of crystal bulls and the wedding rings Megan's mother took off before the storm struck.

Nobody hesitates now about heading to the basement when the skies threaten. Not anymore.

"I just live each day," she said. "I don't really take things for granted any more."

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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