Wichita tornado brings destruction, but no deaths

Residents, friends and family members begin the salvage and cleanup work in Pinaire Mobile Home Park Monday, Apr. 16, 2012, after a tornado swept through the Oaklawn neighborhood in southeast Wichita overnight Saturday, Apr. 14, 2012.
Residents, friends and family members begin the salvage and cleanup work in Pinaire Mobile Home Park Monday, Apr. 16, 2012, after a tornado swept through the Oaklawn neighborhood in southeast Wichita overnight Saturday, Apr. 14, 2012. The Wichita Eagle

The tornado that sliced through south Wichita late Saturday night did a lot of things.

It caused more than $280 million in damage. It clobbered dozens of homes in an Oaklawn mobile home park and it battered Spirit AeroSystems enough to close the plant temporarily.

The one thing it didn’t do was kill anyone.

“The citizenry of Kansas did an amazing job of getting prepared for it,” Gov. Sam Brownback said Sunday afternoon as he toured tornado damage in Oaklawn and south Wichita. “People took it seriously, they got out of the way, they prepared for it, and as a result of that, and the grace of God, we had no fatalities.”

The National Weather Service said the tornado that tore through the area was an EF-3, with maximum winds of 165 mph. It was part of an outbreak that saw nearly 100 reports of tornadoes, though it’s still unclear how many tornadoes there were.

No deaths or critical injuries were reported in the state, which many credited to weather forecasters warning of impending severe weather 24 to 48 hours in advance.

Seventeen injuries were reported in Sedgwick County, according to the Sedgwick County Emergency Operations Center. Only four of those were serious enough to require hospitalization.

“We knew well ahead of time that this was going to be ugly,” Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton said. “People listened. They sheltered in place, and we are very fortunate it didn’t go through some major residential areas and that there wasn’t any loss of life.”

In the Wichita area, the most significant damage was in Oaklawn, specifically the 150-unit Pinaire Mobile Home Park. More than 90 mobile homes sustained damage of more than 50 percent.

Six other homes in Sedgwick County were reported destroyed, three were damaged, and a condominium was damaged.

County and city officials had originally estimated damage at $283 million but said on Sunday the total might be lower.

“You just really appreciate the destructive power of a tornado when you see an I-beam wrapped around a tree,” Brownback said after his tour of the area.

He promised residents and recovery workers that their needs will be a priority for state government. He said an assessment is under way to determine whether the damage is severe enough to trigger federal disaster aid.

Brownback issued a declaration of a state-of-disaster emergency for 39 counties.

All buildings at the Spirit AeroSystems facility received some damage; six sustained significant damage. Spirit, the city’s largest private employer, is closed until at least Tuesday.

The company is putting together a plan to resume operations, said Spirit CEO Jeff Turner.

“It will be a couple days before we have a good, solid plan,” he said.

Boeing and Hawker Beechcraft had minor damage, as did McConnell Air Force Base, which reported small power outages and minor damage to fences, buildings and trees. Planes at the Kansas Aviation Museum also were damaged.

Approximately 30 area residents were sheltered overnight by the American Red Cross at the Derby Rec Center. Officials expected a similar number to spend the night Sunday.

The Derby and Wichita school districts each closed two schools and said they couldn’t provide bus transportation from the affected areas because of street closings.

About 7,300 homes and businesses in Sedgwick County were still without power Sunday evening, down from a peak of about 25,000. Crews from throughout the region, including about 75 crews that are independent contactors, were working to restore power and replace power poles that had snapped in two. It may be Tuesday before power is fully restored, said Leonard Allen, a spokesman for Westar.

Westar said heavy traffic from curious sightseers is slowing down power restoration. Sedgwick County emergency dispatchers asked people to stay out of southeast Sedgwick County unless absolutely necessary.

‘Working together’

The sound of chain saws buzzed all day in Oaklawn as family, friends and others showed up to help clear limbs and twisted trees.

“We’re working together,” said David Parker, one Oaklawn resident. “We have to help each other.”

Many of the residents were working on very little sleep, if any at all. Law enforcement officers and Kansas National Guardsmen had made a house-to-house check to see whether everyone was OK, often knocking on doors as late as 3 a.m. Sunday. Once they were checked, houses were marked with spray paint.

In the mobile home park on Sunday, with all residents cleared out, there was an eerie quiet. The little neighborhood lacked the usual sounds of cars moving, doors opening and children playing. Living rooms lay open to the sky, walls shattered around them. Trees were broken and stripped of leaves, but some limbs were festooned with shreds of aluminum or foam insulation.

It was easy to see that David Smith and his family had lost everything in the tornado; the five of them stood outside the closed Kwik Shop near 47th South and Clifton in Oaklawn, wearing shorts in the breezy 60-degree weather. Only one of them, 6-year-old Sarah, was wearing a jacket.

They were mud-spattered, and tired, and it was obvious to anyone who saw them that everything they owned in the world was what they were wearing. They had their clothes and the dog named Gizmo, the only one of four beloved pets they were able to save before their house was destroyed.

When the tornado struck, David’s soon-to-be wife, Dawn Gunter, had just come home to the Pinaire Mobile Home Park from Sonic. At the Kwik Shop 12 hours later, she was still wearing her Sonic shirt, and the wet socks she wore when she waded through the storm water before and after.

David and Dawn got the three girls into the trailer park storm shelter with only minutes to spare before roofs and walls exploded. In the shelter, people yelled and screamed as the wind tore things apart outside. After the wind stopped howling, David Smith went out among the broken mobile homes, looking for survivors.

The loss of the missing pets had the kids feeling down, though Smith assured them he’d do his best.

“I will look for them,” he told the kids. “But if I can’t find them, I can’t find them.”

Their home was destroyed. A neighbor had told them she saw what she thought was their backyard trampoline in a roadway three miles to the north.

Smith said he had no idea where they might sleep on Sunday night. They’d gathered with other survivors at the local recreational center, though none of them slept much. The girls — Kristan, 11, Pearl, 9, and Sarah — appeared to be in an upbeat mood, though Kristan said she’d had what she thought was a panic attack after the storm hit.

Smith made phone calls and stood outside in the cool air. He grinned.

“Things happen for a reason,” he said.

Some communities lucky

Other communities counted themselves lucky.

Butler County apparently suffered light damage, even with the tornado on the ground.

“We’re sitting here going, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ ” Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt said Sunday.

A tree blew onto a house near Andover, he said, and another tree blew over onto a car in El Dorado. Other than that, officials were finding only minor tree damage.

“Boy, you would have thought there’d be a lot more damage,” Schmidt said. “It’ll be interesting to see what the weather service’s damage survey teams find.”

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