April 25, 2011

1991 twister reshaped Andover, McConnell

Many residents of Wichita clung to the illusion that their city was immune from tornadoes because — according to folklore — twisters don't cross where two rivers meet.

Many residents of Wichita clung to the illusion that their city was immune from tornadoes because — according to folklore — twisters don't cross where two rivers meet.

McConnell Air Force Base on the southeast edge of the city resembled a time capsule of the early days of the Cold War, with many of its buildings dating back to the early 1950s.

Andover was a sleepy town in western Butler County that few people noticed on their way into or out of the Flint Hills.

That all changed on April 26, 1991.

Tornado Alley witnessed an outbreak so large in scope that even veteran observers were stunned: 55 tornadoes touched down, from Texas to Minnesota, and 30 of them were F2 or stronger.

Severe weather killed 21 people that day, 19 of them in Kansas.

The strongest tornado of them all touched down near Clearwater at 5:57 p.m. and began a relentless march through the Wichita metropolitan area.

It destroyed a residential neighborhood in Haysville, ripped through southeast Wichita, slammed through the center of McConnell and appeared destined for the western half of Andover before taking a sudden right turn and decimating the heavily residential southern portion of the town.

It would stay on the ground for more than an hour and nearly 70 miles before lifting five miles north of El Dorado.

At its strongest — in Andover and southeastern Sedgwick County — the tornado measured F5 on the Fujita scale and was as much as 500 yards wide.

It killed 17 people, including 13 at the Golden Spur mobile home park in Andover and four in unincorporated areas of Sedgwick County.

The tornado's impact remains vivid even 20 years later.

"The scars are still there," Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said. "You'll still see where it went" by taking note of the different ages of the trees along parts of Kellogg and 21st Street, for example.

But the impact goes far beyond that, authorities say.

"You talk about a community that's been totally reshaped by a tornado, it's McConnell," said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University.

The tornado proved such a turning point in Andover that the city's history has to be divided into two segments: before the tornado and after.

Even in Wichita and Haysville, where the damage was not as substantial, officials say April 26 taught them valuable lessons they would apply all too soon.


Looking back, Schmidt said, it's remarkable how pitifully unprepared Andover was for a major disaster.

Only one ambulance was stationed in the city. Its only tornado siren didn't work.

Butler County didn't have an emergency management office. In its place was a loose confederation of ham radio operators scattered around the county.

"There was no planning," Schmidt said. "The thinking was, 'If we ever need anything, we'll call Wichita. They'll send us whatever we need.' "

But Wichita was in no position to do that. Local emergency responders were all deployed to handle casualties in that city.

"They were getting damage reports for areas that weren't even showing up on the map" at the cramped emergency operations center in the basement of the Historic County Courthouse, current Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said.

As the tornado bore down on Andover, a police officer drove through residential areas urging people over his car's loudspeaker to seek shelter.

Some listened. Others did not.

By the time the tornado had moved northeast into the Flint Hills, debris blocked major roads east and west of Andover. That meant ambulances stationed elsewhere in the county couldn't reach Andover quickly, Schmidt said.

Doctors and nurses who lived in undamaged areas of town converged on the intersection of Central and Andover Road, where they assessed victims inside tents, said Ben Lawrence, now the city's mayor.

The most seriously injured were transported by whatever means available to Wichita.

"We loaded at least a couple of them on plywood and doors, set them on the back of pickup trucks and said, 'Go west,' " Schmidt said.

They went to Wesley Medical Center, where the emergency room was overwhelmed with injured. Hospital officials had been notified to expect casualties from south Wichita, but they couldn't understand why they were getting so many victims from Butler County.

The Andover example

The lack of preparation was also evident in the days following the tornado.

Residents whose houses had been damaged or destroyed by the tornado were forbidden from returning to their homes to search for keepsakes or other valuables.

Bulldozers were used in the search for human remains — and then to shove the debris into large central piles awaiting removal.

"Everybody uses the Andover example in debris management," Schmidt said. "This is what you don't do, and this is why.

"In their hurry to get things cleaned up, they were forgetting about the rights of the residents," he added. "What little they have, they need to be allowed to go through it, to try to find something. It's their life."

Andover is used as an example in another way: how to rebuild after a devastating tornado.

City officials, whom Schmidt called "visionary," created a site plan committee that established new building codes and standards that shaped how Andover would emerge from the rubble.

"It was an opportunity for Andover to reinvent itself, determine its own destiny," Lawrence said. "You don't get many chances at doing that."

Andover's recovery coincided with a healthy economy and a desire by many Wichitans to move farther from the core of the city.

The city doubled in size over the next 10 years, and then doubled again over the next decade.

Andover Road was a narrow ribbon of asphalt leading to a humble commercial district in 1991. Today it's a four-lane arterial street lined with strip malls and burgeoning with businesses and stores.

The Golden Spur was so decimated, residents became confused about which streets their homes had been on in the aftermath. But it was rebuilt, rechristened Andover Estates and has fewer than a handful of open lots.

The county created an emergency management department and updated equipment. Schools and public buildings in Andover all have "safe rooms" built into them to provide shelter for when the next tornado comes.

"Andover is, in many respects, like it was" prior to the tornado, Lawrence said. "There's just more of it."

A new McConnell

The same can't be said of McConnell Air Force Base.

"It pretty much took a direct hit" from the tornado, McConnell historian Steve Larsen said.

The tornado damaged or destroyed 102 housing units and nine major facilities on the base, including the hospital, library and enlisted club.

The damage was so extensive that some wondered whether the base would be shut down, Larsen said. But officials soon announced that the structures damaged or destroyed would be rebuilt.

The reconstruction reflected an awareness of how the Air Force had changed, Larsen said. Modern housing replaced barracks that were similar to college dorms, he said.

A multi-use complex dubbed Emerald City incorporated several amenities and services into a single building.

"At its time it was the cutting edge in Air Force architecture," Larsen said of the building, which has since been renamed the Robert J. Dole Community Center.

Larsen called the tornado "a catalyst for modernization of infrastructure" at the base.

An emergency plan

The storm served the same role for emergency management services in Wichita and Sedgwick County, Duncan said.

"It's fair to say the whole string of emergencies and disasters, beginning with the April 26 tornado, refocused Sedgwick County on the importance of its investment in being prepared for disasters and emergencies," Duncan said.

Those efforts culminated in the opening of a new emergency operations center at 714 N. Main in June 2007, which uses GIS mapping to maintain up-to-date maps and electronic databases to collate information about damaged areas.

Former Haysville mayor and Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said the April 26 tornado jarred him out of complacency.

"It made me realize you had to be prepared, you had to have an emergency plan," Norton said. "You needed to be thinking about how you networked and were ready for tornadoes, inclement weather and crises of all types."

Those plans were called into action when another large tornado cut through Haysville and then moved into south Wichita on May 3, 1999.

The value of the planning and networking he had done since the Andover tornado was evident to Norton as he stood in the crowded basement of the municipal building at about 2 a.m. after the tornado hit.

"There were 20 to 25 people representing agencies and entities there to help — police, fire, Kansas Highway Patrol, Salvation Army, Emergency Management, Red Cross," Norton said. "Out of all those people, there was only one of them I didn't know by name."

As he drives around a much larger, more prosperous and still growing Andover these days, Schmidt frets about the potential cost in lives and property damage should another large tornado tear through the town.

"We live in one of the most violent places in the world when it comes to weather," he said. "When you live in Tornado Alley, you just accept that — and prepare for the possibility that it could happen."

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