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Remembering the Hoisington tornado

This is the ninth anniversary of the Hoisington tornado, which so easily could have earned a place among the deadliest twisters in Kansas history.

While severe weather had been considered a threat earlier in the evening in central Kansas, the danger appeared to dissipate as the sun went down. Storm chasers I know who had tracked the thunderstorms for hours abandoned the hunt and drove to nearby Great Bend for a late dinner.

While they were in a restaurant, the power flickered, and minutes later they heard the sound of sirens racing north toward Hoisington. They abandoned their meal and drove to Hoisington, where they found the northern half of the city had been hammered.

The funnel touched down just a mile southwest of the city at 9:15 p.m. and quickly grew into a large tornado. Within three minutes, it had intensified to an F4, with winds of more than 200 miles an hour.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado chewed up a path of “almost complete destruction” along a path two miles long and two blocks wide through northwest Hoisington. Two people died from injuries suffered in the tornado, and more than two dozen were injured.

The tornado destroyed 182 homes and 12 businesses, smashing the town’s grocery store and ripping a roof off the hospital. As it exited the north side of town, the tornado weakened rapidly. After crossing Deception Creek three miles northeast of town, the tornado suddenly curled to the northwest, damaging two farmsteads before it fell apart.

If that late curl sounds familiar, there’s a reason: the Greensburg tornado did the same thing in 2007.

Just like with the Greensburg tornado, the Hoisington tornado’s death toll could have been far higher. The tornado touched down at night, grew quickly to a large, dangerous twister and plowed through a residential neighborhood only a few minutes later. Fortunately, residents had taken shelter and stayed there even after hearing the severe threat had eased. Conditions around Hoisington simply didn’t feel right, survivors later said, so they stayed put.

I arrived in Hoisington early the next morning to cover the aftermath. No matter how many times you’ve seen tornado damage, there’s something startling – disconcerting, even – about seeing entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Residents were carefully retrieving whatever they could salvage from the wreckage, or just surveying the debris, their emotions as shattered as their homes. At moments like that, I simply let people talk. It’s not a time for complex questions or answers.

One thing I’ve noticed every time I’ve covered a tornado-damaged area is the wrestling match that occurs within me. One part of me is trying to describe accurately and vividly what’s happened while another part strives to grasp the enormity of the destruction. You can’t visit the aftermath of a Greensburg, Andover or Hoisington without pondering the strength of the natural forces that caused such destruction. It’s just as true at a remote farmstead, though the sheer magnitude of destruction in an urban setting intensifies the sense of shock.

In most of the ways that matter, Hoisington was fortunate on that April night in 2001. Residents paid attention to the conditions and took appropriate precautions, which kept the death toll from being much higher. It’s a lesson residents of Tornado Alley would do well to embrace today as well.