A tornado uprooted trees, knocked over power lines and ripped off roofs Thursday night as it sliced its way through the southeastern Kansas town of Eureka. Miraculously, no injuries were reported, the Adjustant General’s office said Friday morning.
But it didn’t feel like a miracle for many whose homes in the tornado’s path.
Larry Reynolds climbed through a pile of tree branches and stepped over soggy walls and doors, where cabinets doors with nails lay next to uneaten ice cream bars. He could not tell where his daughter Audrey’s yellow wallpaper was. The mobile home she was renting had been so thoroughly torn apart he couldn’t tell whether the boards he was lifting up were from her home or the two mangled mobile homes that were once separate.
But they stayed there for hours, searching. It was important. Inside a black suitcase, somewhere in the house, was the death certificate of Audrey’s son, who had passed away in Wichita recently.
As Thursday night stretched into Friday morning, Audrey held her son’s old football in one arm and a flashlight in another and cried.
Gov. Sam Brownback declared Greenwood County a disaster area, according to a news release from the Adjutant General’s Office.
The declaration, signed Friday morning in Topeka, authorizes the use of state resources and personnel to assist with response and recovery operations.
The Adjutant General’s Office said the tornado damaged approximately 50 homes and businesses. It said the American Red Cross has opened a shelter at the Eureka United Method Church, 521 N. Main St.
A regional coordinator from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management is in Greenwood County to coordinate assistance and to conduct in-depth damage assessments and assistance for debris management.
The Adjutant General’s Office said volunteers are being asked not to self-deploy to Eureka. A Volunteer Reception Center will be coordinated through the United Way of the Plains.
The northern part of the town was an eerie place early Friday. Loose dogs roamed and barked, as heavy machinery lifted trees and chainsaws cut through branches. The lights in most houses were out. The hallways to the local nursing home were exposed, as portions of the south- and west-facing walls of the building had been ripped off.
The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado struck the town, about 30 miles east of El Dorado, just before 10 p.m. on Thursday. Eureka’s north side was hit hardest by the storm, including extensive damage to a number of homes, a mobile home park, the Bible Baptist Church and the Eureka Nursing Center.
“The tornado started at the northwest part of the county and went through Eureka,” said Levi Vinson, the Greenwood County emergency management director. “Several houses were damaged and the nursing home took a hit, however, everybody is accounted for so far. We’re still checking on some people.”
As of 1 a.m. Friday, Vinson said, about 80 percent of the county’s search and rescue operation was complete, with no injuries reported. The Wichita branch of the National Weather Service will be sending a damage survey team to Eureka and Greenwood County on Friday morning.
Vinson said he credits the weather service for alerting Eureka’s residents to the storm Thursday night.
“They gave us ample warning, at least 15 or 20 minutes prior to the tornado hitting our area,” Vinson said. “We were notified, and we sounded the emergency-alert outdoor warning sirens. The leeway they provided us, I think, is what benefited us on the lack of injuries.”
A total of six tornadoes were reported in southeast Kansas on Thursday night, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center, but at least three of those reports were of the tornado that hit Eureka.
The nursing center
Vinson said the residents of the Eureka Nursing Center were sheltered safely in place – the complex has a power generator – and would likely be moved to a different facility on Friday.
Kelly Johnson, a nurse who works at the center, drove from her home in Wichita to Eureka after hearing reports of the storm. With one of the west-facing walls of the center torn off, Johnson climbed over debris to enter one of the facility’s hallways, where she visited some residents.
“I just checked on one of the residents who is 100 years old,” Johnson said. “She was sleeping. People always said that Eureka is in a valley, so it wouldn’t get hit by a tornado. When I heard, I had to come.”
Elmer Hatcher’s house, a block away from the nursing home on Elm Street, was one of the homes left standing. But because of the warnings, Hatcher and his wife went to the basement of the First Baptist Church, they said, just before the tornado hit. When they returned, the saw that their home was flooded and Hatcher’s truck was damaged.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Hatcher said. “I can’t afford to move anywhere. I’m on social security, just kind of stuck. We don’t have homeowners insurance, and I just have liability on my truck. I’m just kind of devastated.”
He was still nervous Friday morning because, even though the only remaining lightning was in the distance, Hatcher had heard another tornado might be on its way but his cell phone service wasn’t working. A 500 gallon gasoline container had been thrown from a block away into his neighbor’s yard.
Nearby, a house teetered on its side, and electrical lines lay across the road from a nearby pole. Across North School Street from the nursing center, to the west, a small mobile home park was reduced to rubble.
Theresa Brown, who owned three mobile homes with her husband, Larry Brown, including the one that Audrey was renting, said nobody was inside the mobile homes when the tornado touched down. Audrey said her mother had asked her to stay for dinner, so she was not at home during the storm. She said she thought it was probably her son, looking down on her from above, who saved her.
Brown said she heard screams from a neighbors house. But when search and rescue showed up and knocked on the door, a man appeared with a cigarette in his mouth, and shooed them away.
“I was about to sleep, I got a lot of work to do tomorrow,” he told the firefighters.
“Everybody does,” one of the search and rescue workers responded, as they moved on to the next house.
Contributing: Matt Riedl and Stan Finger of The Eagle