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Another round of cleanup from storms in south-central Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at 6:17 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 25, 2013, at 6:32 a.m.

A second straight night of intense storms had dazed residents of south-central Kansas cleaning up another layer of damage on Wednesday and wondering what might come next.

Hail as large as baseballs, softballs and grapefruits destroyed cars and shattered skylights in Hutchinson so completely it rained inside a Wal-Mart and the Hutchinson Mall.

Winds of 90 miles per hour or more knocked out all power in Pretty Prairie, leaving the tiny Reno County town looking “like a war zone,” a city official said.

And in Argonia, residents saw an intense, damaging thunderstorm on the town for the second straight night.

“They kinda feel targeted,” Argonia Mayor Alan Brundage said Wednesday. “People are upbeat, but they’re getting tired. They’re wondering what’s going on.”

The severe weather was blamed for a head-on collision that killed a Wichita man in Butler County on Tuesday night. Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said Jeremy Jachim, 39, was driving a 2009 Honda Civic west in the eastbound lane of four-lane U.S. 54 just east of Southwest Indianola Road shortly before 9:30 p.m. when it collided with an eastbound Dodge van.

A heavy thunderstorm and wind probably were contributing factors, Herzet said. A witness told authorities he was unable to get Jachim’s attention to let him know he was going the wrong way.

“It was right about the time the rain was coming down hard and the visibility was down to nothing,” the sheriff said. “I do think it was a factor (in the accident). He must have gotten on not realizing it was a four-lane highway.”

Jachim was pronounced dead at the scene. The van driver, a 31-year-old man from Augusta, and his 16-year-old passenger from Augusta, were taken to Wesley Medical Center with injuries, Herzet said. The 31-year-old was still in the hospital Wednesday afternoon, a Wesley spokeswoman said.

The storms are being spawned by an atmospheric pattern conducive to strong thunderstorms developing in central Kansas and moving east-southeast into the Wichita metropolitan area, said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

What happened Monday night and Tuesday night could happen again Thursday night, he said.

While storms moving through Kansas from the northwest is common in July, Hayes said, “this is the type of (weather) regime we haven’t seen in a few years.”

As the storm moved from central Kansas into Reno County on Tuesday night, he said, it had supercell characteristics. That explains why Hutchinson, Haven and Yoder were pummeled with large hail.

One hailstone found near Haven measured 4.75 inches in diameter, the weather service reported.

As the storm slid southeast toward Pretty Prairie, it morphed into more of a cluster of intense thunderstorms, Hayes said. That meant smaller hail, but stronger winds and heavier rain.

A weather station at the Pretty Prairie golf course measured winds of more than 90 miles per hour Tuesday night, and a trained spotter nine miles from the town estimated winds of 100 miles per hour. Winds nearly that strong slammed into Argonia in Sumner County as the storm complex continued to move southeast.

Argonia Elementary School, which lost part of its roof to Monday night’s storm, suffered another blow from Tuesday’s fresh salvo of high winds and heavy rain, Brundage said.

“It got a lot of water in it” Tuesday night, he said.

Argonia’s River Park, which escaped significant damage on Monday, was not as fortunate on Tuesday.

“The River Park has major, major damage,” Brundage said. “It’s much worse than it was.”

Three recreational vehicles in the park were severely damaged, and four large cottonwoods that helped give the park its identity were destroyed.

“It’s just awful,” Brundage said. “They were some of the biggest ones you’ve ever seen, and they’re all gone.”

School officials in Argonia were assessing the fresh damage to see how it will affect efforts to start the school year on time next month. Monday’s storm ripped the roof off the high school gym, and Superintendent Julie Dolley has said the gym floor will likely have to be replaced.

“That’s a new floor, too,” Brundage said.

Brundage’s neighbors moved into town after their farm was hit three times by tornadoes in recent years. Tuesday night’s storm destroyed a shed in his neighbors’ backyard — and two more sheds on their farmstead.

So much hail fell in Pretty Prairie on Tuesday night it piled up in drifts next to buildings, City Clerk Patty Brace said. Debris accumulated in streets downtown.

“It was just like a war zone,” Brace said. “We couldn’t tell what came from where. It was just a jumbled-up mess.”

A city council meeting was under way when the hurricane-force winds arrived, blowing out a large plate glass window at City Hall.

“We were, all of us, huddled up in the back,” Brace said. “We just watched stuff blow.”

Cars were scooted down the street. Sheet metal ended up hanging from power lines. Shingles were stripped from roofs as the town “hummed and rattled for a good 20 minutes,” Brace said.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve had a windstorm like that.”

The storm snapped 22 power poles in and around Pretty Prairie, according to Westar Energy spokesman Nicholas Bundy.

The town’s fire station served as the command post for recovery efforts, Reno County Emergency Management director Bill Guy said.

The Red Cross was in town to provide assistance, and Hog Wild delivered food for hungry residents cleaning up the storm damage.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s not bad at all,” Guy said of Pretty Prairie. “Structurally, there’s not a lot of damage to homes. There’s a lot of trees down, there’s siding damage, there’s shingles missing, windows broken — but not a lot of structural damage.

“But it will take awhile to clean up.”

That’s true, too, in Hutchinson, where hail knocked out windows at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center and skylights at the Wal-Mart and the Hutchinson Mall, Guy said. Winds tore off part of the roof at Conklin Cars near the mall.

“I’m sure there are a lot of roofs that are going to be replaced” because of the large hail that moved through the east side of town during the first wave and the west side during a later storm, Guy said.

While heavy rains and whipping winds hit Wichita on Tuesday night, the city emerged relatively unscathed. A handful of vehicle submersions were reported late Tuesday night as motorists drove into flooded intersections, authorities said, and power lines were reported down throughout the city.

At one point late Tuesday night, Westar reported more than 4,000 power outages in Sedgwick County from the storm. Winds of 66 miles per hour were reported at McConnell Air Force Base.

Officially, Wichita recorded just more than an inch of rain next to Mid-Continent Airport, but an inch of rain fell in just 30 minutes at Central and Ridge Road on Tuesday night.

Even as cleanup gathered momentum, officials were finding good news amid the debris.

For one thing, Hayes said, the drainage basin for Cheney Reservior “got hammered pretty good” by heavy rain. That’s welcome news, since the lake provides the majority of Wichita’s drinking water and had shrunk to levels so low that city officials were warning that the lake could run dry in a few years if the long-term drought persisted.

Lake levels were at 72 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, with considerable runoff anticipated from Tuesday night’s rains. With more heavy rain possible Thursday night and early Friday, Hayes said, concern over potential flooding is growing.

Over in Argonia, Mayor Brundage found good news in one corner of town. The second phase of a new housing development has a lake in it — a lake that for the longest time had no water.

“Our new lake in the development got filled last night,” Brundage said. “That’s the only positive thing I’ve seen.”

Contributing: Rick Plumlee of The Eagle.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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