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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mobile home park residents return to rubble

By Fred Mann
The Wichita Eagle

The first thing some residents had to do when they returned to the tornado-ravaged Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Oaklawn was figure out which pile of rubble was theirs.

Diana Smith found what had been her spacious double-wide home two lots away from where it had been anchored.

She’d lived there since 2006. Now it was shattered and formless, no longer a structure.

No walls stood, and her belongings were strewn about the countryside.

Luck was with her on Sunday. Smith found some photo albums undamaged. Her mother’s china was mostly intact.

But there was one thing she hadn’t found — the “Green Lady,” a head her mother, Gay Silva, had made in a kiln and presented to her 35 years ago, shortly before dying at age 45.

Smith said she really wanted to find it.

“It reminds me of the love Mom put into it,” she said.

Smith sifted through the debris with her daughter, Kristina Thomches, and her grandson, Zac Linot.

Sometimes, she cried.

“I still think I’m just in shock,” she said. “I still think I’m going to be coming back home.”

Smith and other residents of the park were part of an eerie tableau under a setting sun Sunday. Metal siding was wrapped around broken and stripped trees. Drywall, insulation, broken glass and ruined, soggy furniture littered yards. Homes rested on top of other homes. Vehicles were battered, windows smashed.

Residents and their families and friends carried items from the rubble and loaded them into cars and trucks.

As they worked, a fierce wind blew a scary reminder.

Wes Race found his home 200 yards away from where it used to be.

It was inside somebody else’s house.

“My house took out two other houses,” he said.

Race pulled out a cellphone to show a photo of what used to be the 2,600-square-foot double-wide where he’d lived since 1999. There was nothing left but litter.

Race was lucky in one way. He and his daughter, Amber, weren’t home when the storm hit.

“The key is, me and my daughter are both alive,” he said.

Race said he’d find another place and rebuild his life.

Carol Tomey walked around her home, which wasn’t heavily damaged. She’d managed to survive the tornado inside the home.

“I rode that thing out like a bucking bronco,” Tomey said. “I was laying on the floor by my bed and by a real thin double-wall closet saying, ‘Help me, Lord.’ And he did.”

She said she might look for a house out in the woods next time, and she laughed.

Outside his home, Mike Konert, who had ridden out the tornado with his wife, Kris, said he had to shoo away looters after he returned to the neighborhood.

“People are stealing already, and they don’t even need to be in here,” Konert said.

Suddenly, five young men appeared and asked Konert if he needed any help.

Konert asked them if they were offering to help him for money.

They said “No,” and soon they were firing up chain saws to cut fallen tree limbs.

Most of them were farmers from the Whitewater area. They were Troy and Aaron Wiebe, Nate Holmes, Eric Busenitz and Joel Barkman.

All of them had been to church Sunday and decided to drive to Wichita and do something for the park residents.

“People need help,” Barkman said.

“You know what?” Konert said as the men began to work in his yard. “There is still some good in mankind.”

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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