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One man killed, 200 homes damaged in town of Reading

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, May 23, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.

READING — After a deadly tornado pummeled this east Kansas town, Jill Scales' instinct would be to turn to nearby family for refuge.

But her family can't help.

The same tornado that left Scales' mobile home a wreck Saturday night also knocked the roof off her parents' house and wiped her brother's mobile home away.

"We have nothing, no place to call home. It's hard," Scales said Sunday sitting outside her mobile home, which the storm left with caved-in walls and no roof. "We're just still in shock. We don't know where to go from here. What do you do?"

Residents of this tiny town started to pick up the pieces of their lives Sunday after a 140-mph tornado whipped through, killing a man and damaging an estimated 80 percent of Reading's structures, mostly wood-frame buildings.

The EF3 tornado was three blocks wide as it roared along the ground for about four miles shortly after 9 p.m. Saturday. It tore the steeple off a Methodist church, crushed a grain elevator, tore the roof off the local post office, blew the back side off the local fire department, tore houses off foundations, blasted windows out of cars, uprooted trees and destroyed homes.

Don Chesmore, 53, died from injuries he received when the tornado flipped the mobile home he was in. He was pronounced dead shortly after being taken to Newman Regional Hospital in Emporia, about 20 miles away, hospital supervisor Deb Gould said.

Five other people were injured, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. She did not have details on their injuries or know whether all were hospitalized.

About 200 homes were damaged in and around the town of about 250 people about 50 miles south of Topeka, Watson said, and all roads in and out of the town were closed off.

Gov. Sam Brownback declared an emergency for 16 counties, including the one surrounding Reading, Watson said. The declaration allows state resources to be used in recovery and cleanup and paves the way for federal assistance if needed. Watson said a state team had been sent to Reading to help local officials with recovery work.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim and everyone impacted by this storm," Brownback said in a news release.

Brownback and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran are expected to tour the area today.

'Pretty devastating'

On Sunday, architects went from house to house to determine which ones were structurally sound.

Buzz saws reverberated through the town as workers tried to remove trees that littered homes throughout the area. White utility trucks lined city streets while crews worked to restore gas and electric service.

Some people worried whether the town could ever recover completely from the damage. They were concerned whether the federal government would replace the local post office when it was closing others and whether the local school district would replace the town's elementary school at a time of budget cuts.

"This is a huge blow to this community," said Lyon County Commission Chairman Scott Briggs. "In a small town like this people are very resilient, but this is going to be tough for them."

Others were more hopeful.

"It's pretty devastating for everybody," said restaurant owner Reta Jackson. "It's hit everybody in town. We're all going to pull together and we'll make it better."

As powerful as Saturday's storm was, its randomness could be seen throughout the town. While it damaged the post office, it seemed to leave intact City Hall across the street as well as Reading's original jail, built from wood in 1870.

Richard Heathman, who with his wife runs a salon near the center of town, huddled in the salon's basement with friends and family as the tornado moved into the city. It destroyed a building next to the salon that Heathman had been renovating for a grocery store.

"It was pretty crazy," Heathman said. "It sounded like the whole building was coming in on itself. I thought we were trapped. When I came up I expected the worst."

Two of Heathman's buddies had left to get a better view from a nearby hill when the first alert sounded. They hustled back to the salon just as the storm started to move into Reading.

"I never, ever thought when we left to watch the tornado that it was going to follow us back home," said Galen Davis.

Season picks up in Kansas

While many states have been struck by severe storms this spring, Kansas has been having one of its lightest tornado seasons in decades, according to the National Weather Service. Until Saturday, no tornadoes had been reported in May, a month that averages nearly 30. Last May, 127 tornadoes tore through the state.

For the year so far, the state had seen only eight tornadoes, compared with the January-to-May average of about 44.

The tornado season picked up late Saturday, however. Powerful storms rolled across the northeast part of the state, spawning funnel clouds and hail that ripped limbs off trees and shattered windows. In Topeka, residents reported hail the size of baseballs.

Along with the tornado that hit Reading, the National Weather Service confirmed that one touched down in Topeka and northeast of the city near Lake Perry, where damage was reported at a nearby campsite, Watson said. An elderly couple was trapped inside a mobile home until emergency responders could clear debris. The couple was not hurt.

Southwest of Topeka, an EF0 tornado damaged an outbuilding and snapped trees near Washburn Rural High School.

Hail as large as 5 inches in diameter was reported in Shawnee County. One person was injured by hail that broke car windows.

In Osage County, minor damage was reported to several homes in Quenemo, but no injuries were reported.

National Weather Service meteorologists determined that an EF1 tornado with winds around 90 mph was the cause of the damage around Quenemo. The survey determined that the tornado, as wide as 100 yards, started on the west side of town.

Kansas Adjutant General Lee Tafanelli would not compare the tornado that hit Reading to more severe tornadoes like the one that destroyed Greensburg in May 2007.

"Each one of these tornadoes brings tremendous amount of devastation," Tafanelli said. "If you're one of the affected individuals, they're all the same. It doesn't matter what size the tornado is."

Contributing: Tony Rizzo of the Star; Associated Press

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