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Storm knocks out Ellis power

5/23/2008

By JUNO OGLE

juno@dailynews.net

ELLIS -- Residents of Ellis spent the first day of a holiday weekend cleaning up from Friday night's storm, many feeling lucky it wasn't worse.

The town was struck not once, but twice by confirmed tornadoes that ripped a hole in the high school roof, broke windows, severely damaged small structures in town and left the city without power.

But no homes were flattened and there were few injuries.

"There's lots of tree damage," said Mayor Dave McDaniel, who was working in his store, Trio Lumber, Saturday afternoon while keeping in touch with emergency preparedness officials and others. "Lots of old, old trees are down."

There was no damage downtown, McDaniel said, but the city did lose a metal building near the sewage plant.

"Ellis was real lucky," Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin said. "There are some farms out there without some buildings, and some homes that have damage."

Harbin surveyed the damage path in a helicopter owned by the Kansas Highway Patrol this morning, and noted that much of it was contained to a few areas.

"Most of it was in the vicinity of Ellis and the surrounding area," he said. "It starts south and west of Ellis, and moves north and east. A few miles from the county line, there's some houses with roof damage and some outbuildings that are destroyed." Harbin said that one sheriff's deputy witnessed one building taking damage.

"One of my guys was parked on a county road when he saw one of the tornadoes tear the roof off of an outbuilding, and it flew right by him," he said. "He also had a few power poles fly by his car, and that spooked him pretty good." He also said that a woman was injured in that same outbuilding.

"She rode the storm out in that building, so she was pretty lucky."

The storm also wreaked havoc on Interstate 70, further north, as numerous tractor trailers were overturned, and one was even carried across the road to land on the other side.

"We had one confirmed tractor-trailed overturned on I-70 that we worked, and we also tended to a pickup on 110th Avenue just north of Old Highway 40 that was stuck under a tree," Harbin said. "We pulled that out this morning. KHP covered most of the others, so I don't know how many they have."

The city's granite welcome sign next to the Interstate 70 off-ramp is gone -- although the flag poles were untouched.

A house on the north side of town had its roof lifted off, and the wading pool at the city pool was sucked dry. Just filled last week, the pool was scheduled to open Tuesday. That will likely be postponed, McDaniel said.

His main concern, however, was power. One of the tornadoes took the roof off a brick barn on the west edge of the city, sending it sailing north across the road and ripping into power poles that are part of the town's main power supply.

Crews from Midwest Energy and its contractors were on the scene much of Saturday, and hoped to have power back on Saturday.

Power was not a problem at the Ellis Travel Plaza next to the Interstate, however. Assistant manager Angela Hafliger said the plaza has had a backup generator since it opened in 2007, and it has come in handy several times.

"We've been busy all night long," she said Saturday. "The coffee line this morning was unbelievable."

With power out, many residents as well as interstate travelers were looking for their morning jump start. The convenience store had two coffee machines going and the lines were 15 to 20 people deep, Hafliger said.

"People were literally holding their coffee cups right under it," instead of waiting for the pots to fill, she said.

Hafliger said she was at the store when the storms hit Ellis starting at about 8 p.m.

"We were sheltering about 75 to 80 people, most of them off the interstate," she said.

Saturday, the travel plaza was a hot spot in town, with travelers and residents alike filling up with gas and getting cool drinks. Downtown, Rich's IGA and the Finish Line convenience store were also open, operating on generators. Bags of ice were the most common item heading out the doors.

The Dairy Queen at the travel plaza was closed, but the Subway sandwich shop was open and busy.

Among those who stopped in for lunch were Jan Dysert, Donna Maskus and Darcy Kaiser, volunteers with the Ellis County Community Emergency Response Team. The three had been helping clean up downed tree limbs at the Ellis Lakeside Campground in the morning and, after lunch, headed out to pick up more limbs in the southern part of town.

The campground had been nearly full of campers overnight. Campers went to the storm shelter in the nearby Lutheran Church.

The campground also attracted many locals curious about the high water level Saturday and a steady stream of trucks loaded with tree limbs passed by to the city's dump site.

A large tree limb fell on a pickup at the campground, McDaniel said, crushing the pickup bed and damaging a camper as well. No injuries were reported.

At the high school, crews were busy Saturday repairing a 30- to 40-foot hole in the roof. The gymnasium had some water damage.

Across the street from the high school, Steve Plotner was patching his roof. Plotner was in Hays during the storm Friday night.

"It didn't hit the house too bad," he said with a shrug.

His garage was beyond simple repairs, however. The cinder-block structure he was using for storage was flattened.

"Now I just have to figure out how to get my roof from across the street," he said, pointing to an empty lot where part of the house's roof lay, upside down, a light bulb still stuck in a socket.

* Reporter Brandon Worf contributed to this report.