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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tornado destroys Oaklawn homes but not hope

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

So many questions, so many concerns.

Where to live? How to pay for it? Will insurance be enough? If no insurance, what now? Finding four walls and a roof is one thing, but how do you rebuild a life?

Lives were shaken when an EF-3 tornado tore through southeast Wichita and Oaklawn on the night of April 14, damaging or destroying nearly 800 homes and causing more than $146 million in damage.

Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured.

Hundreds of volunteers have spent the past week trying to help the residents as best they could by cooking meals, clearing debris and giving hugs. Neighbors have helped neighbors.

As of Friday, the Midway-Kansas Chapter of the American Red Cross alone had distributed 7,435 meals and snacks and provided 92 overnight stays at its Derby shelter.

Answers don’t come easily when bodies and minds are exhausted after spending days digging through rubble looking for anything worth keeping. But there were smiles when two red roses — their petals still in place — were found on a bush crushed by debris.

Through it all, many are also grateful for what they do have.

“Our lives,” Patricia Kuntz said.

Today, The Eagle profiles five families who lost their homes in Oaklawn’s Pinaire Mobile Home Park.

Retired couple after tornado, home loss: ‘We’re together’

At 62, Johnnie Cousins has survived brain tumors, emphysema and other health problems.

On the night of April 14, a tornado threw another mobile home on top of hers on South Clifton while she and her 69-year-old husband, Paul, watched weather reports in their living room.

“I feel like I can take just about anything God throws at me,” Johnnie said last week as she and Paul rested in their temporary home — a hotel suite provided by their insurance.

They could be staying there up to 12 weeks. So far, they said, it appears that their coverage will allow them to recover financially.

In their temporary home, they sat holding hands. Paul is a stocky, retired truck driver who doesn’t seem to get ruffled. He suffers from arthritis. She has to use a walker or wheelchair and has difficulty breathing.

Their mobility and health problems are part of the reason they didn’t go to the mobile home park shelter before the tornado hit.

They also thought the tornado was going to miss them, until their television flew off a shelf and they heard an explosion and the lights went out. Johnnie put a blanket over her head, held on to her hospital bed in their living room and prayed.

She felt their house shake hard and recalled thinking, “We’re going flying. I just knew we were. But everything sat down.”

Part of the ceiling fell on Paul, and he was still sore several days later. A sheriff’s officer carried Johnnie out.

Now, they aren’t sure where their permanent home will be. Maybe at a handicapped-accessible facility designed for seniors. Maybe back at Pinaire Mobile Home Park.

They bought their three-bedroom, two-bathroom mobile home in 1993 for $18,000; they couldn’t afford a regular home, Johnnie said. The home was several years old at the time.

When Johnnie first saw the home, she recalled, “I walked into that trailer, and I just fell in love with it. It just felt good in there.” Their children spent their teen years there.

She described herself and Paul as “pretty simple people.” They have been married since 1972. She worked as a drugstore sales clerk for years, until she began suffering from brain tumors around 2002.

Medical-related expenses exhausted their savings, and they rely on Social Security income, they said.

Although the tornado destroyed their home, relatives have been working hard to recover some of their furnishings. They lost some family-tree information they had collected.

“I’m not really concerned about the things we lost,” Johnnie said.

“Our kids and grandkids are safe, and we’re together.

“Those are the things that are important.”

— Tim Potter

Family with disabled son had to plan ahead for shelter

Shortly after James and Patricia Kuntz moved into Oaklawn’s Pinaire Mobile Home Park about 15 years ago, they learned their son, Thomas, had Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Thomas was 5 then. Getting around was no problem. But by the time he was 10, he was in a wheelchair and now has to spend most of his days in bed.

As the April 14 tornado bore down on southeast Wichita, the Kuntzes knew that mobile park’s shelter wasn’t an option. There was no way to get Thomas and his motorized wheelchair down its steps.

So they loaded into their van and headed for the nearby Oaklawn Activity Center to take shelter well before the tornado screamed through the park, ripping apart their home and many others.

“I know I have to start over,” said James, 47. “Maybe this time I can get a house that’s made to specifications for my son.”

Thomas, 21, has one request: a home with a basement.

James, a 15-year employee at Hawker Beechcraft, was told by his bosses he could take off as much time as he needed.

For that, he’s grateful. And he’s thankful his family wasn’t hurt, that the wheelchair ramp he built helped keep the home from flipping over and preserved many of the items inside, that the 1996 home was insured, and for friends and family who helped.

While the home and furniture were destroyed, most of the major appliances survived. Not the sheets, though.

“It was laundry day,” said Patricia, 48. “All the sheets were in a pile.”

Losing some of the big-ticket items doesn’t hurt nearly as much as losing those with sentimental value. Like the KU-Chiefs blanket their daughter, Lindsey, a junior at Emporia State University, made for her dad.

Insurance money will help the Kuntzes start over. They haven’t ruled out returning to Pinaire.

“We like the area,” Patricia said. “The park was great. And if they rebuild, I assume they’ll build a shelter we can get into.” (Park owner Trent Hardison has told The Eagle he plans to rebuild the park.)

But it would be difficult to fix a mobile home to accommodate Thomas’ needs, James noted.

Remaining in the south part of Wichita is important to them. Friends and work are nearby.

Before moving to the mobile home park, they lived in a house on Hemlock just a few hundred yards to the north.

Yes, they were there when the 1991 tornado tore through the area and devastated Andover. Thomas was only 7 months old, Lindsey about 3. Their home sustained only minor damage..

“Storms seem to like us,” Patricia said.

For now, the family is staying with James’ father in north Wichita. They’ll probably move into an apartment until they figure things out.

“We’re in a safe spot,” Patricia said. “We’re very lucky. For good or bad, we still have something. A lot of our neighbors don’t have anything.”

— Rick Plumlee

Tornado scatters belongings, plans

Twenty-three-year-old Jenea Tucker pointed to the concrete pad where his and his mother’s mobile home stood until a tornado shredded it April 14.

Then he walked 75 feet to another mobile home lot where many of the things that had filled their home came to rest in a twisted, rain-soaked, wind-dried pile of debris.

Four days after the tornado hit, Tucker found one of his new exercise shoes, still in good shape, but the other was gone. He located another of his shoes, half consumed by a fire that kicked up after the tornado struck the Pinaire Mobile Home Park and ruptured gas lines.

The storm scattered Tucker’s things and scattered his plans.

Tucker had just finished up at Butler Community College, majoring in business, and was preparing to transfer. But now that he and his mother have lost their home, he’s not sure where he will end up, maybe back in California, where he spent about the first half of his life, maybe back in Texas, where he lived for a while. For now, he and his mother, Yvonne Tucker, are staying in a hotel.

On Wednesday, he walked and paused among the debris. “Lot of my stuff is over here. Some of my clothes sit there,” he said, motioning. He spotted a box that had held his cologne. He paused at a pile of CDs. “I think those were my mom’s.”

“My church shoes, right there,” he said, looking down at two blue suede shoes, dusted over with debris.

He stood by a decapitated tree with a storm-tossed metal beam wrapped tightly around its 2-foot-thick trunk.

He found a now-damaged drawing of Michael Jackson that a friend had drawn for him. “That was something real special.”

Tucker’s heart is in music. He loves R&B and spent many nights making and recording music on computers that the tornado shattered. All that music is gone.

When the tornado hit, he had been visiting a cousin in east Wichita. His mother was home and went to the mobile home park shelter.

He kept calling her but couldn’t get through. When he finally reached her, she sobbed to him. “It’s gone,” she said of the home she had worked a decade to buy. It was a four-bedroom, double-wide trailer. “It was nice, too,” he said.

He felt so relieved that she was OK. He lost all those things, but not his precious mother.

“You can’t replace my mom.”

His mother is stressed by the loss, he said, even though they have insurance coverage.

Tucker stepped around shattered doll heads, part of his mother’s collection.

He picked up a packet of papers, realized it was their folder of important family documents and stowed it under his arm.

He walked a little more and reached down again, exclaiming, “Wow!” He held up a bound stack of photographs, still mostly in good shape. “Let me tell you this story,” he said, and explained that they are pictures of his biological father, whom he had only recently met.

Tucker said he had found his Bible among the debris.

“I mean, God works in mysterious ways. I have faith in God. I just work off that.

“One thing I’ve learned from the Bible is God won’t give you nothing more than you can handle.”

Whatever happens now, wherever he ends up, Tucker said, “It’s going to be a good move.”

And he kept spotting things, even high up in a mound of debris as big as a house.

“Our couch is all the way up there,” he said.

— Tim Potter

Dad, daughter move forward with new lives

Less than 24 hours after last week’s tornado wiped out his home in the Pinaire Mobile Home Park, Wes Race wrote down a list of things he needed to do to start a new life for him and his 12-year-old daughter, Amber.

He cancelled his utilities, went online and found a new home nearby that was available, signed a new lease, and already has had his utilities transferred to the new home.

That’s the way Race, a 40-year-old marketing director at Renewal by Anderson and a former assistant basketball coach at Butler Community College, always has operated.

“I have a plan, and I’m going to execute that plan,” he said. “Nothing is going to hold me back, not even a tornado.”

The mobile home he had lived in since 1999, a 2,600-square-foot double-wide, was blown about 200 yards and wiped out two other homes.

But father and daughter were lucky. Neither was in the home when the storm hit. Race was at a wedding at Lake Afton, and Amber was shopping in Derby with her mother.

Race’s phone began exploding with text messages, and he soon learned he’d lost everything.

He and Amber have been living at a Best Western at 47th Street South and Broadway since the storm.

Amber, a sixth-grader at Haysville Middle School, has adjusted well to the loss of her home, Race said. The tornado was a mere bump in the road compared to what happened to her when she was 5 years old. Amber was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at that age, and had to endure chemotherapy treatments that took her hair.

Race said that after the tornado, he told Amber, who has been cancer-free for seven years, the same thing he told her after she beat cancer: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Amber, a top student who also was one of 10 girls picked for next year’s cheerleading team at her school, lost her life-size cutout of Justin Bieber to the tornado, but Race’s co-workers ordered a new one and it already has arrived, Race said.

Race said the support he and Amber have received from friends, co-workers and the rest of the community has been almost overwhelming.

“Until something bad happens you don’t realize the network of support you have in this community,” he said. “People ask why I have stayed in this community, and it’s times like this I know exactly why.”

Race has done things for the community, as well. His father, also named Wes Race, was a longtime blues aficionado in Wichita, and he passed the love of music on to his son, who has brought different bands to Wichita to perform, including one for a fundraiser for Heartspring, which helps children with special needs.

It was Race’s father who came up with the idea for the Tornado Bait Party, a local tradition that started at the old Spot Recreation back in the early 1980s and has continued every year at the Shamrock Lounge.

Before last week’s tornado struck, this year’s party was scheduled for Saturday at the Shamrock Lounge, and the decision was made to go ahead with it. Race’s father, who lives in Fort Worth, came to Wichita to be part of it.

“If that Tornado Bait Party had happened a week earlier, can you imagine the irony?” Race said.

— Fred Mann

Rays of hope in tornado’s aftermath

Even in the aftermath of the darkest clouds, rays of sunshine poke through.

Adam and Kimberly Cicora’s mobile home was demolished in the tornado that ripped through Oaklawn’s Pinaire Mobile Home Park on April 14. The 26-year-old couple’s possessions were scattered over a quarter of a mile.

Wednesday, after being out of work for two months, Adam landed a job booking trips for Caribbean cruises. It is not his dream job, but it’ll do until he finishes his studies to become a pastor.

Thursday, they found an affordable townhome near the Derby Recreation Center, which has a shelter. They move in next Saturday.

Kimberly, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Curtis Middle School, will receive her master’s degree in May from Friends University.

Most importantly, Adam said, “We’re alive.”

They see more hope as they look into the eyes of their 7-month-old son, Jacob, who slept through the storm.

Still, fears and concerns creep up with all the changes and costs of starting over.

“We’re emotionally exhausted,” Cicora said. “I knew when we left that night we wouldn’t be going home again.”

Adam was spending that weekend helping with a youth retreat at Mulvane’s First Baptist Church. He took shelter at one of the host homes in Mulvane.

Kimberly’s mother picked her and Jacob up hours before the tornado struck because they were well aware of the threatening conditions.

“My whole wife’s family is addicted to the Weather Channel,” Adam said.

Maybe it’s because her family has spent many years living in mobile homes.

“I’ve lived in mobile homes pretty much my whole life,” Kimberly said. “But I never thought a tornado would hit mine.”

Kimberly and Jacob took refuge at her brother’s mobile home in Haysville. Unlike Pinaire, which had one large community shelter that was quite a way from the Cicoras’ home, her brother’s park had one underground shelter for every four homes, and his was only 20 yards from his back door.

Kimberly strapped Jacob into his car seat and took him into the shelter, where he slept soundly as the storm passed overhead. Her brother’s park sustained only minor wind damage.

Adam and Kimberly returned the next day to find an ugly sight. They managed to scrape together a pickup load of stuff, but Adam said some of that won’t be salvageable.

They had been renting the home from Kimberly’s dad for about a year and had renter’s insurance. That will help.

But Jacob senses something isn’t right.

“He just knows he’s not in his bed, his room,” Kimberly said. “He fights going to bed.”

At the same time, the rays keep coming. Their church and her colleagues at Curtis have helped with everything from gift cards and clothes to babysitting.

Her students even offered to help with the cleanup.

“There’s no point in being sad anymore,” Adam said. “What’s gone is gone. We have to move on. By the grace of God, we will.”

— Rick Plumlee

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