April 16, 2012

Going to shelter not an easy decision

For hours Saturday, Wendy Buchanan was more into watching movies than worrying about the weather.

For hours Saturday, Wendy Buchanan was more into watching movies than worrying about the weather.

The 41-year-old kept telling her 45-year-old fiancé, Keith Howell, “Nothing’s going to happen.” For almost nine years, she had lived in Pinaire Mobile Home Park, just beyond south Wichita, without a tornado hitting. But Howell, who was riveted to the marathon weather reports instead of the movies, could see their own drama taking shape.

At one point, Howell — trying to convince Buchanan that they needed to go to the park’s shelter with their two children — argued: “Tell the people in Joplin, ‘Nothing ever happens.’ ”

In about 130 other mobile home lots around them, others were having to make the same decision: Stay or go to a shelter.

Thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Cousins lives in the Oaklawn neighborhood just north of the mobile home park, where his parents live. He tried to persuade them to go to the park’s shelter, but they have health issues, figured the storm would blow over and decided to stay in their living room. Cousins went to the shelter without them.

Meanwhile, Howell had become insistent with Buchanan, telling her, “we’re going” to the shelter. He showed her on the TV screen that bad weather was headed toward them. They reached the shelter about 20 minutes before sirens sounded, and eventually they would be joined by an estimated 60 to 75 other people in the reinforced concrete shelter on the east end of the park. It looked like there was plenty of room for more people.

Some people opted for other shelters. James Kuntz’s 21-year-old son, Thomas, has muscular dystrophy, and his wheelchair would be difficult to get down the eight steps to the park shelter. Kuntz took Thomas to another nearby community shelter, a fortified safe room. The Kuntzes left an hour before the bad weather arrived. James Kuntz left a glass of iced tea in his mobile home.

No pets allowed

The Pinaire shelter has signs over its two doors saying no pets allowed, so 54-year-old Richard DeVries drove west toward Goddard with his cat, Molly. He wasn’t leaving her. He left his algae-eating fish in its tank.

Fifty-six-year-old Terry Pata, who has lived at the mobile home park since the early 1990s, decided to take shelter about 10 Saturday night. The park shelter, below ground and built around the 1980s, is only about 30 yards from his front door. He had used the shelter three previous times. He noticed on the walk to the shelter, with his wife, stepdaughter and grandchild, that the air was heavy, humid. The wind had died, but lightning danced.

Sue and Mark Barrow had taken some time making up their minds about what to do. Sue, who had been doing laundry, anticipating that they might lose power, had been watching the weather reports all day and into the night Saturday. They decided to load their two dogs and essential supplies into their extended cab pickup and head to the park shelter. But they held off leaving because it was raining and blowing hard outside. When the fury died down, they left — too late.

At first they parked too far from the shelter. Finally, they stopped at a spot a few feet from the shelter entrance. But as Sue opened the truck door, debris blew by. She shut the door, reached over to her husband and said, “It’s here.” She thought they were going to die.

The wind rocked their truck, and something shattered the truck window behind them, pelting them with safety glass.

Minutes earlier, Terry Pata’s wife, Mushell, almost left the shelter to use the bathroom at their home across the street. Her daughter told her, “Don’t go, Momma.” But Mushell went up the shelter stairs, stepped outside and lit a cigarette. She took two puffs and retreated back down into the shelter when she felt cold rain hit her arm.

In the shelter, anxiety grew as adults strained to hear radio reports about an approaching tornado as children cried and the noises echoed off the concrete walls. Families huddled and prayed. They worried about neighbors and relatives who hadn’t taken shelter with them.

Down in the shelter, they lost cell phone reception.

For awhile, Josh Knox stood outside while his wife, Alicia, and their young children remained in the shelter. A large white cloud loomed, from the sky to the ground, and power lines sparked to the south along Clifton.

“There’s one on the ground,” someone announced. “Everybody in, and close the doors.”

Alicia Knox told her husband to get inside. Josh Knox must have been the last one at one of the two shelter doors, because just as he closed the door and the lock plunger clicked into place, he could feel the door flex out from him.

His ears popped. His wife heard what sounded like a giant industrial vacuum roaring above them.

Through shelter air holes, they could see trees falling around them.

They heard explosions, and some felt tremors.

Some people screamed.

After the tornado

As soon as the wind churned past them, they smelled natural gas. Someone yelled to the others not to light a cigarette.

As they exited the shelter, flames rose into the air in the middle of the mobile home park.

Donavan Kreie, who had huddled in the shelter with others, called 911 and told the dispatcher to send EMS, police and fire crews.

“We’ve just been hit by a tornado, direct hit,” he told the dispatcher.

Daniel Cousins left the shelter and had to work through felled trees to check on his parents, who had decided to stay in their mobile home. When he saw the front part of their home had slumped in, he thought they were dead. It was quiet.

The storm had flung another home on top of his parents’ home, destroying it but sparing the part of the living room where his parents stayed and escaped injury. Across from his mother’s bed, a tree limb the size of a man’s forearm thrust through the wall.

James Kuntz returned to his mobile home and found that even though the ice in his tea had melted, the glass remained undisturbed. He felt lucky. Across the street, the floor of a mobile home rested on its side with an attached toilet bowel resting 15 feet up in the air, its tank parallel to the ground.

Richard DeVries came back and saw that even though his fish tank had been shifted by the damage to his home, his fish was still alive.

Daniel Morgan, 48, was one of those who stayed in his home, huddled with his wife, two young grandchildren and five Shih Tzu dogs. They didn’t go to the park shelter partly because the dogs weren’t allowed and partly because after multiple National Guard deployments to Iraq, Morgan said, he is not one “to run” from anything.

But Morgan conceded that after seeing his shed tumble away with the wind, watching his neighbor’s house begin to lift into the air and finding his vehicle two streets away — next time they will act differently.

They will leave town, he said.

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