Lightning hits tree, damages Woodman school in southwest Wichita

04/24/2014 8:20 AM

08/06/2014 11:03 AM

A lightning bolt from a thunderstorm blasted a beloved cottonwood tree in the courtyard next to Woodman Elementary in southwest Wichita Thursday morning, sending bark flying that injured a man bringing his granddaughter to the school and shattering several classroom windows.

The morning’s events were a stark reminder of the dangers of spring storms in Kansas. More severe weather is possible in the Wichita area this weekend, forecasters say, though a great deal of uncertainty remains about the timing and nature of the threat.

“There was glass everywhere,” USD 259 spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in the aftermath of the lightning strike at Woodman Elementary, at 2500 S. Hiram, which is southeast of Pawnee and Meridian.

The lightning bolt hit just after the 8:50 a.m. bell sounded alerting students and teachers that the school day would begin at 9 a.m., Woodman principal Jana Epperly said.

“It was like a big boom,” Epperly said. “We didn’t know what it was” at first.

The lightning bolt split the tree, sending bark flying into a classroom wing. Several windows were broken or shattered.

The music room has been closed because glass fragments filled the carpet, Epperly said. Maintenance crews will have to replace the carpet.

Students in a couple of classrooms were relocated in the building until clean-up was complete. Woodman teachers and staff were still buzzing later Thursday over the fact that no one in the school was hurt even though so many windows were shattered or broken.

“They were saying ‘If this would have happened even five minutes later, that could have been a lot worse’ ” because more students would have been in the areas where glass flew, Arensman said.

A piece of the tree struck a man as he was walking his granddaughter to school just before 9 a.m.

“He at first thought his umbrella hit him in the head,” Arensman said.

The man initially refused medical treatment at the scene, but later was taken to a local hospital for treatment and observation.

He had “a big goose egg” on his head from the chunk of wood that hit him in the head, Epperly said. He underwent a CAT scan at the hospital, she said, but appears to have escaped serious injury.

As for the weekend forecast, “it doesn’t look like a slam dunk” for tornadoes in the Wichita area, National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Smith said. “Everything’s not quite coming together just right” for tornadoes.

Computer forecasting models are suggesting storms could develop in central Kansas on Saturday afternoon and then form a line of showers that move through Wichita late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, he said – in other words, quite similar to what happened late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning.

The cottonwood tree hit by the lightning bolt Thursday morning has been a favorite of students and teachers at Woodman for decades. But it had been reduced to mulch by a school district maintenance crew before 11 a.m.

The crew also cleaned up chunks of wood that littered the playground and boarded up broken windows.

“We’re just counting our blessings right now,” Epperly said. “It could have been really bad.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Caruso called the bolt that struck the tree “a pretty nasty lightning strike.”

“It just goes to show that lightning can be just as dangerous as the hail and tornadoes, if not more so,” he said.

The same storm brought up to half an inch of rain in northwest Sedgwick County and similar amounts to south Wichita, National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Caruso said. But southwest Wichita missed the rain.

Only 0.03 of an inch fell overnight and early Thursday morning. Heavier amounts were reported along I-70 and in central Kansas.

Winds of up to 70 mph were reported near Wellington. Strong winds nearly toppled a utility pole near Hydraulic and 55th Street South.

More than 1,000 Westar customers around Sedgwick County were without power late Wednesday night, according to Sedgwick County Emergency Management.

Hail an inch in diameter was reported in Hill City in northwest Kansas, Pearce said. The Storm Prediction Center logged reports of winds reaching 60 mph in Norton County.

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