READING, Kan. -- An EF3 tornado swept through a small eastern Kansas town, killing a man in a mobile home and destroying at least 20 homes, as severe thunderstorms pelted the region with hail that some residents said was the size of baseballs, authorities said early Sunday.
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 from where the tornado hit Saturday night in Reading, hospital supervisor Deb Gould said. She said two other people were brought in with injuries but she had no further details.
Five people were injured in all, along with the person killed, said Sharon Watson, the 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, Watson said. The local post office and volunteer fire department were damaged, and all roads in and out of the town have been closed off. Reading is about 50 miles south of Topeka.
The tornado was reported about 9:15 p.m. Saturday. It was three blocks wide and stayed on the ground for about four miles.
A survey team has yet to assess the damage in Reading, but fields around Reading were littered with sections of aluminum, insulation and papers. A tractor stood alone in a field, the building that surrounded it demolished. A large board pierced the wall of a home that was missing its roof and windows. A pile of stones was all that was left of another building.
Outside, some people were beginning to clean up the debris, utility crews were fixing downed lines and law enforcement officers were taking pictures to document the damage. One family sat on their front porch looking at what the storm had done. Next door, their neighbor’s mature cedar tree had been toppled.
Rev. Lyle Williams, who lives in Emporia and is a pastor for about 10 worshipers at the Reading First Baptist Church, said the church suffered extensive damage.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he told The Associated Press. “My daughter was out there and told me about it.”
“I’m not going to be able to have church today that’s for sure,” he added, saying he’s been a pastor at the church for 21 years.
Residents and their family and friends posted pleas for information on a Facebook page. Many landline phones in the town rang unanswered Sunday, and the storm had disrupted cell phone coverage.
Although some power had been restored, most of the town remained without. A shelter was set up at a local school, and the Salvation Army was serving meals, snacks and drinks from a mobile feeding kitchen.
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 to 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 of trees and shattered windows. In Topeka, residents reported hail the size of golf balls and in some cases baseballs.
Along with the tornado that hit Reading, the National Weather Service confirmed 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 five inches in diameter was reported in Shawnee County. One person in the county was injured by large hail that broke car windows at Sixth Street and Croco Road.
In Osage County, minor damage was reported to several homes in Quememo, 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 the town.
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 is expected to tour the area on Monday.
Lyon County has established an incident command post and a local disaster declaration was signed by Lyon County Commission Chairman Scott Briggs at 12:57 a.m. today.
Residents with proper identification are being allowed to return to check on their property, but will need to leave the city by 6 p.m., officials said. Tentative plans are for residents to be allowed to return tomorrow morning at approximately 9 a.m.
Non-residents and unauthorized personnel are not being allowed in.
Power lines are being repaired and debris is being moved out of roads.
Five families with a total of 19 members have taken shelter in Emporia.
People who want to volunteer, offer donations or get information about families can call the Red Cross at 785-234-0568.
People who remained in Reading today are being asked to stay at home or take advantage of trasportation to a shelter at the junior high school. The Salvation Army is coordinating another shelter at the Super 8 Motel at 2913 W. U.S. 50 in Emporia.
No one was allowed to search for items or to walk through Reading, where Westar Energy confirmed that all power was out.
All pets that have been found wandering loose are being taken to the Animal Control Shelter at 1216 Hatcher St. in Emporia.