The tiny town of Rozel nearly died at supper time.
A huge tornado wider than the town itself passed just west of Rozel in western Pawnee County on May 18, clipping five farms before it finally lifted. A portable Doppler radar measured wind speeds of up to 185 mph, making it an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
“The tornado would have wiped out the entire town,” said Aaron Johnson, the science and operations officer for the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service.
More than half a mile wide at one point, the tornado drew comparisons from Johnson to the one that struck the Wichita metropolitan area on April 26, 1991.
“When I went up to do the damage survey, I was much more impressed than I expected to be,” Johnson said.
A 1,000-gallon propane tank that was at least half-full was carried for a quarter of a mile.
“That’s some power,” Johnson said.
When he watched videos of the tornado, he said, he was reminded of the 1991 tornado as it tore through south Wichita and McConnell Air Force Base.
“We see those type of tornadoes all the time” in western Kansas, Johnson said.
But because the Enhanced Fujita scale is based on damage, he said, massive tornadoes that hit in sparsely populated areas are given ratings that don’t properly reflect their strength.
The May 18 tornado was initially rated EF-2 based on damage on a farmstead where a couple’s house was destroyed. But the house didn’t take a direct hit, Johnson said. It was clipped by peripheral circulation.
Had the tornado actually hit Rozel, he said, it would easily have done EF-4 damage.
Talk of the town
“Everyone that’s come in the shop says, ‘I just knew that the town was going to be gone,’ ” said Pat Cook, who works at Blattner Manufacturing on the west side of Rozel, home to little more than 150 residents. “It was headed straight for town, but it turned.”
Julia Blake, who lives about seven miles east of Rozel, watched the tornado develop and then churn northeast toward the town.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Blake said. “You could just start seeing it filling with debris.”
From where she stood, it looked as if Rozel was about to be obliterated.
“It really did,” she said. “It was so close – oh, my God.”
Rozel is used to close calls.
The entire town was damaged or destroyed by a tornado and hail that struck in 1949, and there have been several near-misses since then. Folks still talk about the tornado that hit the Zook place in the 1970s southwest of town before crossing K-156 and lifting just before it reached the city limits.
And Cook remembers racing to the school to pick up her little boy as a rope tornado dangled above Rozel in the mid-1980s.
“They had told all the kids to stay in the school building, but he took off for home – he was heading home to the basement,” Cook said of her son, who was in elementary school then. “I was trying to get him to get in the car, but he would not even slow down for me. He was running fast that day, let me tell you.”
The tornado touched down after it passed over Rozel.
“We do a lot of praying out here, you know,” Cook said lightly.
Folks in nearby Larned call western Pawnee County a “tornado magnet,” said Johnson of the National Weather Service.
“It’s kind of amazing,” he said.
Rozel and neighboring Burdett seem to be part of a tornado-prone area that stretches from Pawnee County northeast into Rush and Barton counties and roughly includes the towns of LaCrosse, Timken and Hoisington. All three of the towns have been hit by tornadoes since the turn of the century.
It’s one of four areas in Kansas where tornadoes seem to be more frequent, Johnson said. The others are:• Harper County in south-central Kansas
• From Mullinville to Greensburg to Macksville in central Kansas
• From Beloit to Concordia in north-central Kansas
A huge tornado wiped out Greensburg in 2007, and Macksville was threatened by a tornado later that same night. Both towns endured close calls again last year.
Tornadoes that hit or threaten Wichita often have their origins in Harper County, and storm chasers are well acquainted with the towns around Beloit because storms often strike in that region.
That makes basements so valuable in those areas where they’re cost-effective, Johnson said, and reinforced safe rooms vital elsewhere.
Sheltering in the basement saved the couple whose house was destroyed by the tornado just west of Rozel on May 18.
“If they had been upstairs, they wouldn’t be alive,” local hairstylist Ann Ellis said.
If the tornado had tracked perhaps a mile farther east, Rozel wouldn’t be, either.