Steve Morgan knew it was bad when he glanced out his kitchen window Tuesday and saw the trees in his yard bending sideways.
Ted Detelo was celebrating a daughter’s third birthday with about 18 people at the Praise Ranch Ministry in the old high school building in Pawnee Rock when cellphone alerts started going off saying to seek shelter immediately.
That’s when things exploded.
It was 8:03 Tuesday evening.
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By 8:16 p.m., help began to arrive as people crawled from their wind-whipped houses and began to see how a tornado had changed lives in this tiny town of about 250 residents.
“It was like a bomb exploded,” said Morgan, who got covered with glass and debris.
Mud and broken glass line the inside of Morgan’s house. His chimney blew out, as did most of the windows and the roof; giant trees in the yard were uprooted.
He was one of many people in Pawnee and Barton counties who began cleaning up Wednesday after Tuesday’s bout of severe weather.
Barton County authorities said more than a dozen homes were destroyed or heavily damaged by Tuesday’s tornado, including nine in Pawnee Rock. The rest were in rural Barton County, several in a row along 10th Street, a few miles west of Great Bend.
The National Weather Service rated the tornado as an EF-3, with peak winds of 165 mph. It was on the ground for 27 miles.
Pawnee Rock is about 18 miles southwest of Great Bend.
“We probably won’t get over this for years,” Morgan said. “It killed our television set and almost all our personal things. There is no insurance for that.”
On Wednesday, the sound of chainsaws permeated the air around town and up on the Pawnee Rock landmark, where the twister tossed century-old trees like matchsticks and tore off part of the roof on the historic landmark along the Santa Fe Trail.
Riding it out
Tyler Swank thought he was preparing for a thunderstorm as he hunkered down in his mobile home. A deep cut ran the length of his face.
“The windows busted up and cut my face and back,” he said as he walked out to the one remaining vehicle of four that he could plug in his cellphone to recharge.
Things like electricity and a normal way of life will be a long time in returning.
“I’ll stay at my daughter’s house tonight and then start over,” Swank said.
When the storm came, Swank said, he had no warning. He said he is too far out in the country to hear the sirens.
“I was just going to ride it out, no big deal,” he said. “But then I saw the trees blowing over and it sounded like somebody was taking a wrecking ball to us and crushing things. It was loud.”
Within a few seconds of the storm hitting, sheriff’s officers and ambulances began showing up to check on people. On Wednesday, volunteers showed up.
“There were people out here today helping us try to get things picked up,” Swank said.
Flying over the area on Wednesday morning, Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said he saw swirl marks from the tornado in the mud.
Saving the dogs
Morgan said his wife is confined to a bed, and he was just beginning to fix them dinner when she mentioned a storm was coming.
The couple grabbed their dogs and hurried to get to the back of the house.
A gas line broke at some point during the storm, and families were evacuated afterward. But the Morgans wouldn’t leave their dogs.
“We just couldn’t do that to them,” Steve Morgan said.
The storm damaged a rental car and a motorcycle, the only forms of transportation he had.
He doesn’t know how he will get to work at his job at Larned State Hospital.
At the Praise Ranch Ministry, people barely had time to make it to the tornado shelter, Detelo said.
“We grabbed the girls, and there was this huge explosion and it hit and took out all the skylights,” he said. Walls and glass shattered.
“All this is just material goods,” he said.
“Nobody got hurt. Praise the Lord.”
But then, there was another loud noise. It was the winds ripping the roof off the school’s gymnasium and vocational shop.
The buildings were not insured.
“We got canceled in April and have been searching for insurance since then,” he said. “But things happen. We have a lot of volunteers. People are showing up from Larned, Great Bend and Pawnee Rock.
“The things that matter most are safe.”
‘Didn’t hear the siren’
Konny Trinka looked at her home of 30 years on Wednesday and cried.
“We didn’t hear the siren,” she said.
The family knew the storm was coming and went to the basement, where Trinka keeps a twin-size mattress. They barely had time to place it above their heads when the tornado hit, she said.
“That’s when we heard the glass breaking and the sound of the roof coming off above us.”
On Wednesday, the family was hurrying to get the house covered before the next storms approach on Thursday.
Volunteers interested in helping should first call the Barton County clerk at 620-793-1835.