On Saturday, Paula Miskimen-Cooley and her son Paul, 17, didn’t think they’d be meeting the governor Sunday.
But tornadoes have a way of changing plans.
The Cooleys live in the Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Oaklawn. They got back to their damaged trailer just in time to run into Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who spent much of his day touring areas damaged in Saturday’s destructive storms.
Despite many warnings, the Cooleys rode out the tornado in their mobile home, only a few yards from trailers that were picked up by the winds and smashed. The tornado tore the skirting off their trailer and wrecked the fence and shed, but the trailer itself survived the storm.
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“It felt just like a really hard windstorm,” Miskimen-Cooley told the governor.
“Next time, please get to a shelter,” Brownback implored. “You guys got really lucky.”
Miskimen-Cooley said she’d take that advice unless she’s out tornado chasing, which she does as a hobby.
Pinaire was ground zero for an EF-3 tornado that ripped through areas in and around southeast Wichita.
“You just really appreciate the destructive power of a tornado when you see an I-beam wrapped around a tree,” the governor said shortly after touring Pinaire.
Brownback promised residents and recovery workers that their needs will be a priority for state government.
He also took private tours of the damaged Spirit AeroSystems plant and McConnell Air Force Base.
In Oaklawn, Brownback and a busload of elected officials surveyed damage and met briefly with relief workers and a few residents who got into the evacuated area.
In the background, loader operators worked to move destroyed trailers, cars and debris from the streets to clear the way enough for residents to come in and salvage what little they could.
Most of the trailers had been lifted off their blocks like toys. Many were either on their side or smashed into beams and twisted sheet metal.
The destruction had Brownback shaking his head that no one was killed and only a few injuries, mostly minor, were reported.
He credited weather forecasters for getting warnings out 24 to 48 hours in advance, and residents for acting on those warnings.
“The citizenry of Kansas did an amazing job of getting prepared for it,” Brownback said. “People took it seriously, they got out of the way, they prepared for it, and as a result of that and the grace of God, we had no fatalities.”
Sedgwick County fire Capt. John Troyer told Brownback that there were about 150 mobile homes in the Pinaire park. The park does have a hardened storm shelter where a lot of residents found refuge.
“Over 90 percent of the homes were 50 percent or more damaged,” Troyer told the governor, who then asked, “Is there anything you need that we can address?”
Replied Troyer: “As of right now, it’s the people here who need the help.”
Brownback said Saturday’s storms were an extraordinarily broad weather event, with more than 90 tornadoes spread out over 40 percent of the state.
He and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said an assessment is under way to determine whether the damage is severe enough to trigger federal disaster aid.
Moran and Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said they will be working with Washington to bring as much help as possible once the assessment is complete.
“I’m here in part on behalf of Sen. (Pat) Roberts and I to make certain that we’re prepared to move quickly should there be an opportunity for us at the federal government to encourage and to insist and to demand that federal assistance occur.”
Added Pompeo: “We were out at Spirit, a lot of work out there to do, and I know that our senators and the rest of the Kansas delegation will make sure that every federal resource is available to make sure they can get back up and going just as quickly as possible.”
Brownback said helping the disaster victims is a state priority and money is available to do that.
“Fortunately ... we were really responsible with the budget last year and have got a pretty good surplus.”