Twister, Hits Emporia!
Kansas is part of Tornado Alley
It's a dubious distinction to be sure, but Kansas as well as most of the mid-western plains states helps make up Tornado Alley. Now these states have other more significant things they are known for, but somehow when I tell people I'm from Kansas, the talk invariably turns to tornadoes.
The truth is, I lived in Kansas for more than thirty years before I ever saw a tornado. And while I never was a storm chaser, I looked for them every time a watch or warning was issued. But the weather patterns that produce these storms also produce other things that make them difficult to see. Funnel clouds that are touching the ground and damaging things are sometimes obscured by heavy rain, low hanging clouds and other things. Also, they can't be seen at night logically, so all things considered, I was probably closer than I realized on a number of occasions, and just didn't know it.
Emporia, Kansas is a small city in the central eastern part of the state. It's about a hundred miles west, southwest of the Kansas City area, and around fifty miles southwest of Topeka. It was the home of William Allen White, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner during the Great Depression. He edited and published the Emporia Gazetteand was a major influence in that region. His descendants still operate this daily newspaper..
I had lived in Emporia off and on for a number of years, as it was the largest city in a seven or eight county area, and offered a lot more opportunities for employment than anyplace nearby. In the spring of nineteen ninety, I returned to the city to live after an absence of several years. We found a home in a newer neighborhood on the southwest side of town and settled in. A neighbor to our right introduced himself as Victor. He worked at a local packing plant, and his wife was with the school district. They were great neighbors and some of the friendliest people I have ever known.
Getting reacquainted with the friends I had known for years and enjoying the family I had that lived there made the adjustment easy. I was working for a company that wanted me to open a new operation for them, and get it up and running as soon as possible. They had signed a national contract for the firm that employed Victor, and the terms of the contract spelled a specific deadline for being able to offer service.
The work was pleasant, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It included conducting surveys of the customer's needs and the multi-step process of getting our outlet open. First an associate and I scouted for about three days to find a suitable location. There were a lot of considerations to keep in mind. The building needed to be of a specific size, or as close as we could get, and have space for both office and warehouse. Preferably, it wouldn't require a lot of renovation, and be close enough to the contracted customer to provide good service.
We looked a several potential buildings and eliminated them for various reasons. One of these was about three blocks away from my home. It was a steel building mounted on concrete, and would have worked well except for it's small size and awkward location. We kept it on the short list for the boss to check and continued. Another place we checked was a large business building that needed a lot of remodeling to make it work right. Parking was limited. and it was more than twice the size we would have considered optimum. But is had potential so we gave it the walk through. While checking, we walked into the loading area near the overhead door, and noticed the owner was renting the room for storage. Two local businessmen had needed a place to keep some cars, and found it there. One of these was a white, nineteen fifty-seven Ford T-bird convertible. This was a beautiful automobile. There were also, parked along with it, a nineteen seventy-five Plymouth Duster and a seventy-three Barracuda. Both of these were fully restored. None of them were driven much. They were display cars, and the owners mainly just took them to car shows or occasionally drove then in a parade.
Oddly enough, when the boss checked the buildings, he went for the last one, buying it outright, and the cars were removed. The two Plymouths were taken to the owner's home which just happened to be across the street from the first small steel building we had looked at. I never heard where the T-bird went.
The Calm before the storm
We took possession of our new site sometime in May. As I mentioned, there was a lot of remodeling required to bring it up to our standard, and we were busy for over a month getting it done. During that time, I consulted with numerous contractors and vendors, secured bids, took quotes on furnishings, and all the other things that go along with a new business. We, meaning the associate who assisted with scouting the buildings, recruited, interviewed and eventually hired a person to work the inventory end and put him to work while the remodel was in progress. The weather was heating up, and the late spring humidity elevated up into the eighty percentile range. The guy we hired overheated one afternoon and passed out, resulting in a call to nine one one. He came around all right but lost a few minutes of his memory. The medics told him he needed to take it easy on the high temperature, high humidity days.
"Here it comes!"
On June seventh, nineteen-ninety, we were nearly finished. I left work that afternoon and arrived home about five pm. My neighbor, Victor, was out in his front yard working. I watched him rearranging landscaping barriers as I parked the truck. By this time, a storm had moved in and we were getting some light rain. It wasn't he heavy deluge stuff we often received during heavy thunderstorms, but it was enough to get wet just walking to the front door. I commented to Victor about working in the rain, and he answered that after the heat earlier, it felt good. I had to agree.
From the dryer environment inside our home, I observed the precipitation diminish, and the cloud cover break up. We ate our evening meal and went back outdoors to take in the evening air. Kansas in early June, due to daylight savings time sees the sunset at about eight thirty pm. It was still somewhat early and we had about two hours of daylight left. We were chatting with Victor and his wife, Mary and watching the storm that had passed through earlier move on to the southeast. It was a nice evening so we were enjoying it.
As the minutes ticked by, we noticed the storm wasn't moving away from us like it had been. It wasn't moving toward us either but seemed to have stalled somewhere maybe about thirty miles from town. But the clouds were building up on the storm's trailing edge. We watched them literally forming in a cloud mass that wasn't moving, but was rather growing toward us. I had never noticed anything like this before, and it was a little weird. Within thirty minutes, the clouds once again covered the sky, and it was starting to rain again. We decided to go back inside. It was about an hour before sunset, and we turned on the TV.
Almost instantly the weather service broke into regular programming, and alerts of severe conditions were appearing all over eastern Kansas. Then they announced a tornado warning for the city of Emporia and all of Lyon County. A tornado had been spotted about four miles southwest of town moving to the northeast at about twenty miles per hour.
If your hear enough of these warnings, you get a little used to the language. Northeast is the normal direction for tornadoes to travel, and the largest percentage of them go that direction for some reason. The normal speed according to these warnings seems to be around fifteen to twenty-five so there was nothing out of ordinary about it. The big issue for people that hear this all the time, is that a lot of warnings don't produce tornadoes. That's because warnings are often issued based on radar indications, and while rotating winds can be detected by Doppler, the operator can't verify a tornado on the ground. Many times a vortex will dissipate before producing a touch down tornado, and even one that hits the ground may pull back up before becoming a threat to anyone. A lot of Kansans react the same way I did. I sent the kids to the basement with my wife and went outside to look for it.
Our neighborhood was bordered by an industrial zone on the south and west sides Automotive shops, building firms, storage places and other businesses lined the street to the west, and an abandoned grain elevator sat next to the railroad tracks on the south. The elevator was visible for miles around as it boasted four steel silos about eighty feet tall. Kansas has a lot of these things, and I guess no one needed this one anymore, so they deserted it. I stood outside under the carport and watched the sky to the southwest. Like everyone that engages in this sort of foolishness, I figured if I saw it, I could make it to shelter before it hit.
I was standing next to a basement window that just happened to look out over the same area I was watching and my wife had opened the window. They were in the rec room on the southwest corner, which is supposed to be the safest place in a basement, and she had the television turned on. A spotter had confirmed a tornado on the ground two miles southwest of town and still moving toward our area. She insisted I come inside immediately and I reluctantly did. In the basement we both stood and watched out the window, as much of the sky as the small rectangle would permit. We could see two of the homes behind ours, that faced the street behind us, but the view was primarily taken up by the four grain silos three blocks away. We watched for maybe a minute and I noticed the air became still and the rain stopped.
As we watched, a cloud of debris suddenly exploded over the top of the silos. It was like a burst of dirt, boards and anything else that might have been laying on the ground suddenly shooting out of a pressure cooker. I'll never forget the note of fear in my wife's voice when she said, "Here it comes!" We huddled together with our three kids and got as close to the floor as we could.
Before we moved there, we had lived only a few miles from a military base and a military jet repair facility. As such, the noise of jet engines being tested was not unfamiliar to us. Even at our distance, when the mechanics test fired those engines, we often had to increase the volume on our TV to be able to hear it. As that storm approached, I thought to myself, how much like those jet engines it sounded. I also wondered how it would feel when it hit the house. Then a gust of wind hit the house hard enough to rattle the windows, and was followed by another a split second later. A third gust about twice as powerful hit immediately after the second, and the house creaked. Then the jet engine noise receded into the distance. We all stood up, and my first reaction was that we got off lucky. Then I realized it had missed us.
Everyone ran back upstairs and we looked outside.
After the storm
Somewhere during the jet engine roar, and the gusts of wind shaking the house, the electrical power went off. My oldest daughter checked the phone, and surprisingly, we still had a dial tone. While the rest of us ran outside, she called our local utility.
From the front step, I looked to the north, and saw the funnel. At that time it was probably around a half mile north of our home. Where it came out of the clouds was about a half mile to our east, and it extended in a gentle slope to the west until it reached just past our location. Then, it abruptly curved down in a straight line to the ground. We had no way of knowing it, but at this point, it was doing some of it's greatest damage.
Sirens were blaring from the emergency equipment and police cars that started entering the neighborhood. Cops were running around shutting off gas meters and checking and searching through the gathering twilight. One near our home was yelling at onlookers to stay inside. An ambulance came by, lights and siren on, and went to the end of the street and stopped. All the activity was going on about a block and a half away from us, so we determined the tornado had missed us by just that much and struck down the street. My daughter had completed the call to the electric utility and went outdoors to reclaim the lawn chairs. These were the heavy metal type that weighed about forty pounds apiece. They had blown in opposite directions, one into the back yard, and the other into the neighbor's yard to the east. She brought them both back under the carport. The people at the electric company told her we didn't have power because a tornado had come through our part of town. I thought "Those folks are on the ball.".
By this time it was raining pretty hard, and as we had no power, the sump pump wouldn't run, and water began to seep into the basement. My wife and kids went over to a relative's home on the other side of town to spend the night. I slept on the couch just because I thought it was a good idea to have someone there.
As is often the case after a tornado, the following day was bright, sunny and warm. I guess it makes it easier to clean things up that way. People were out, including the normal group of curiosity seekers wanting to see the damage along with the ones who's lives had suddenly been abruptly altered. Until the night before, I would have been one of the the former, but living through this experience changed that. And now when something like that happens, I am content to stay away and let people get their lives back together.
The ambulance had stopped at the last home at the end of the street. When the warning was issued, a man living on the other end of town became concerned because he had no storm shelter. He was home alone with his infant daughter, and was afraid for her safety, so he decided to try to find someplace safer. He put her in the car, in a car seat and drove to a relative who lived in that same home at the end of the street He jumped out to the car and grabbed the infant seat. But by this time the funnel was coming straight at him and he ran for the front door of the home. Before he could get inside, the winds plucked the infant carrier from his arms and pulled it away. He was twisted around and slammed against the side of the house. His neck was broken and the infant carrier gone. When the ambulance arrived, they found him alive, and his spinal cord intact. As big as this miracle is, it's dwarfed by the other one. The found the infant carrier in a vacant lot next door sitting on the ground in the same manner it would have in a car. The baby was alive and unharmed. The only concern with the infant was a strap had slipped and was across her throat, and could have choked her if she hadn't been found. Oddly, the home was missed by the storm and suffered only minor damage.
The house across the street from where they found the baby was gone. Completely gone. It had been two story home, where the lower story was partially underground. The funnel had hit it squarely and everything from the concrete foundation and up was destroyed. A trail of trash leading away from the foundation and halfway across the vacant lot was all that remained. Somewhere in the debris, the people that lived there found his motorcycle, damaged but probably repairable. Down inside the partial basement furniture and other things sat undisturbed, but drenched from the rain. Surveying the wreckage, he yielded to frustration, and threw a cover that had broken off his motorcycle across the street.
The house to the east of this one appeared largely untouched. It had some damage in the way of missing shingles on the roof, and a some wind borne debris in the form of framing lumber had been shoved through the walls. but overall, it could be fixed easily and relatively inexpensively. The one on the other side wasn't so fortunate. It was heavily damaged by debris, and was leaning on its foundation. It was torn down a few months later.
Prior to striking these two homes, the storm hit the two directly in the rear of these. Both were smashed to splinters of wood and looked like a bombs had exploded inside them. In one of them in the garage were the two Chrysler show cars that had been removed from the building where I worked. They were both totaled, and had an estimated value over a hundred thousand dollars. According to the news, the owner didn't have them insured.
Across the street from these homes sat what was left of the small metal building we had checked when we were looking for a place to locate the business. Imagine a model of a like structure, made out of aluminum foil, that someone had crushed in their hand. It was unrecognizable compared to it's original condition.
Farther south, before the storm traversed another vacant lot to the metal building, it had struck the grain silos. This was when my wife and I witnessed the debris cloud from our basement window. The three silos on the east end were unharmed, but the one on the west end had taken a direct hit. It still stood up and wasn't missing any of the steel plates that formed it's body, but a huge dent had been formed on one side near the top. The effect was similar to depressing one's thumb against the side of a soda can, until the side bends in and the top tilts over at an angle. This couldn't have been done without making a loud noise, but we never heard a thing.
By the time the storm struck the town, it's direction had changed. It was no longer moving to the northeast, but had veered to the left. passing through the west end of Emporia in a northerly direction. It followed the street that bordered the west end of our neighborhood northbound, causing the damage described here, and then continued across town. At times it lifted somewhat and then came back down. A steakhouse was nearly destroyed, then it lifted again missing a Ford dealership and descended down onto a city utility building. From there it hopped through another residential area, destroying virtually every home on a cul-de-sac and then lifted and pulled back into the clouds. The view we saw from our front step was when it hit the last housing addition, just before it dissipated. I later spoke with a witness who would have been in it's path had it not ended. From his vantage point, he could see the tail thrashing so violently that when it lifted off the ground, it flipped upward, forming a hook shape before dropping back down.
A few days later, I was visiting with the electrical contractor who worked on the business building. His shop was about a block north of the vacant lot where the baby had been found. He relayed his story stating that he had only a day or two before, had one of his business trucks repainted. He feared a hailstorm, so he opened his shop to park the vehicle inside. By the time he came back outside, he saw the funnel bearing down on him, so he jumped into his other truck and backed out of the drive to get away. He said when he shifted from reverse into drive, he hit the accelerator, and by this time he could feel the force of the wind blowing into the funnel. The truck moved sluggishly, but finally caught traction and he was able to get away. He was lucky. A vehicle is not a good place to be if a tornado strikes.
The day after the storm, we visited Victor and Mary and asked them about the experience. Their son had been on their front step taking pictures when we stepped outside immediately after the funnel came through. Victor relayed his account, stating that Mary and their children went to the basement. Victor, being curious like me, stood inside looking to the south through their patio door. His family was continually calling for him to retreat downstairs, but he kept putting it off. He witnessed the funnel overhead stretching across the sky, and moving to the north. Transfixed, he forgot all about seeking shelter and thought to himself, "If that thing drops down here, we're all in trouble."
The following evening, another tornado watch was issued, and we sat on his patio watching. The sirens again sounded, and it was announced a tornado had been spotted six miles south of town. We watched from our vantage point as it formed. It disappeared a few moments later without causing any damage.
Tornado scientists still don't know exactly how these storms work. They have a pretty good idea of what causes them, and what conditions are favorable to their formation, but some of the actual inner workings are still a mystery. The Internet is full of valuable resources for anyone who wants to learn more about this so I won't go into that part.
The storm that hit Emporia Kansas on June seventh that year was rated as an F2. On a scale of one to five thats not real powerful, but it caused a huge amount of damage. In spite of this the community was fortunate that there was no loss of life. The most serious injury was the man with the broken neck, and he recovered although it was a long process.
I personally can remember at least three occasions where a tornado struck this area. Oddly, they seem to hit the same side of town. The one in this missive intersected the path of another that struck in nineteen seventy-four and killed six people. Every spring and early summer brings a new risk.
In spite of the damage they cause, and the mystique that surrounds them, tornadoes don't scare the people who live in Tornado Alley. The risks of being hit are very minor. The one I experience was quite small, having had a funnel that was probably only a few dozen feet wide where it touched down. Giant storms leaving a damage path over a half mile wide have hit there several times in the last twenty years. Still the residents who live there hardly feel they are braving the elements. To them these storms are just another facet of nature that must be dealt with. And so they do.