April 17, 2012

Gawkers slowing tornado recovery efforts, authorities say

Gawkers continue to plague recovery efforts in Oaklawn, days after a mile-wide tornado hit the Wichita area.

Gawkers continue to plague recovery efforts in Oaklawn, days after a mile-wide tornado hit the Wichita area.

“We have significant traffic issues,” Sedgwick County sheriff’s Capt. Annette Haga said Tuesday. “Some of it is legitimate traffic, and it is aggravated by people who don’t need to be there.”

The snarls aggravated by sightseers have slowed the recovery effort, Haga said, because they’ve made getting larger vehicles in to haul off debris or collect belongings more difficult.

Authorities have tried to limit access to Pinaire Mobile Home Park by monitoring the traffic that goes north on Clifton into the park. But drivers on Tuesday were simply moving barricades out of the street to go where they wanted, Haga said.

Shirley McCutcheon and her daughters have been at Pinaire every day, helping her friends Lynn and Bill Richter dig for remnants of the life they once had. The tornado picked up three neighboring mobile homes and dumped them onto the Richters’ home, crushing it.

The unrelenting procession of the curious finally got to McCutcheon, who lives in Haysville.

“There are way too many gawkers, and sight seeing people out there!!” she posted on Facebook. “Please, if you are not there to help, stay home.”

One of McCutcheon’s Facebook friends called the gawking “insult on top of injury” for those hit so hard by the tornado.

Authorities are considering going to a wristband system – one color for volunteers assisting in the cleanup effort and another for residents of the stricken area.

Police officials on Monday had identified gawkers as perhaps the biggest headache they dealt with after the tornado struck late Saturday night.

Haga said she left her house in east Wichita moments after the tornado had cleared the area and headed toward Oaklawn.

“I was stunned” by how many gawkers were already jamming the streets, she said. “It was like you were trying to get out of downtown Wichita when the fireworks show is over” during the River Festival or on July 4.

“The traffic was just unbelievably heavy.”

So heavy, in fact, that emergency vehicles couldn’t get into the damaged areas.

“We had trouble getting to victims,” Haga said.

It can still be a struggle to keep streets clear so emergency vehicles have access to Oaklawn and other damaged areas, she said.

Westar Energy is working hard to get service restored and heavy equipment moved out of the area to clear streets and ease congestion – particularly before the weekend.

“That’s what we’re afraid of – a weekend surge” of gawkers, Haga said.

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