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Kansas hit by more than month's worth of tornadoes

4/16/2012

By ROXANA HEGEMAN

By ROXANA HEGEMAN

Associated Press

WICHITA -- The massive storm system that plowed through Kansas this weekend damaged businesses, uprooted trees, caused power outages and upended about 100 homes in a Wichita mobile home park. But no serious injuries or fatalities were reported, which one authority called "pretty much a miracle."

The National Weather Service said the system spawned at least a "month's worth" of tornadoes in Kansas, about as many as the state normally would see in April.

Damage survey teams from the National Weather Service spent time Sunday in areas hit hardest by the storms that swept through Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa all day Saturday and early Sunday. They were trying to determine how many tornadoes the storm spawned, said Mike Hudson, a weather service meteorologist in Kansas City.

The storms hit the Kansas counties of Sedgwick and Rice especially hard. The Pinaire Mobile Home Park in southeast Wichita sustained significant damage, but there were no major injuries. Several of the mobile homes were demolished, others were heavily damaged.

"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."

Susan Scott, whose Wichita mobile home sustained minor damage, said she always goes to the storm shelter when there is a tornado warning. But she hurried to it faster this time after hearing news reports about the advancing tornado from reporters who were watching it.

"To them it was frightening, you heard the stress," Scott said. "You knew they were seeing things. It prompted you to hurry a little bit."

When she reached the shelter, she found neighbors who normally don't go to it also taking shelter. As they awaited the storm, the residents talked about the more ominous sounding warnings that prompted them to leave their mobile homes.

The Wichita television stations all pre-empted regular programming Saturday night to track the multiple tornadoes across the state. The stations showed live streaming videos from storm chasers showing tornadoes hitting other parts of the state. So when the frightened spotters started talking live to the stations about the monster tornado heading straight to the state's most populous city, people listened.

By Sunday morning, large swaths of Wichita were closed to all but residents as authorities began clearing downed trees and power lines. Authorities urged residents to be patient. Preliminary damage estimates in Wichita could be as high as $283 million.

Residents of heavily damaged Pinaire Mobile Home Park were not allowed back in until late Sunday afternoon.

They found a devastating scene. Many mobile homes were reduced to a pile of twisted wood and siding.

John Thompson was not concerned about "all the material stuff" as he viewed his badly damaged home Sunday. He was looking for his three cats.

"I can't find my animals -- that is the only thing I want back," he said.

Segdwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said Sunday considering the devastation at the mobile home park, it was surprising there weren't more injuries.

"As we all know, tornadoes and trailer homes especially don't mix well, and to me it's pretty much a miracle that no one was more seriously injured," Hinshaw said.

A reported tornado also damaged McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita. Earlier Saturday, officials had relocated 16 KC-135 Stratotankers to Grand Forks Air Force Base as a precaution. There were no reports of injured service members or aircraft damaged, but the 184th Intelligence Wing of the Kansas Air National Guard building sustained some damage.

Storm damage was reported at the nearby Kansas Aviation Museum, including its B47 display. Six buildings at Spirit AeroSystems were damaged significantly and four others had major damage. Both the Hawker-Beechcraft plant and a Wichita elementary school sustained roof damage.

Yvonne Tucker was watching news coverage of the storms Saturday night at her home in the Pinaire Mobile Home park. She said Sunday she joined about 50 people, including her son and a friend, in the park's storm shelter for several minutes.

Tucker thought about returning to her home, but when she got outside, she looked up and saw "a dark funnel cloud in the air."

"I ran back into the shelter and as soon as we all got in ... that's when it hit," Tucker said. "You just really heard a big boom... and the lights went out and there were babies crying and the gas smell, so we stayed down there for quite a while."

She said Sunday she was trying to gather some clothes for herself and her son.

"We lost everything, the home, the car too," she said.

The National Weather Service said there were 122 preliminary tornado reports in the region this weekend, the majority of them in Kansas. Hudson said some of those are likely multiple reports of the same tornado.

The most recent 20-year average for the number of April tornadoes in Kansas stands at 12, he said. Even once multiple sightings are accounted for, Hudson said there will have been more than 12 tornadoes reported in the state from the weekend outbreak.

"So it's safe to say we really had at least a month's worth of tornado activity in the state of Kansas yesterday considering that an average month of April has 12 tornadoes," Hudson said.

Gov. Sam Brownback toured Wichita on Sunday, telling reporters he was amazed that with 40 percent of the state under some type of weather advisory no lives were lost. He credited the people of Kansas for preparing for the storms.

"The real story here is what didn't happen," Brownback said.

The weather service said Kansas was likely to be clear of heavy storms Sunday, but several counties across southern Missouri were under tornado warnings until late Sunday evening.