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Tornado outbreak

5/23/2008

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It was a second night of terror for northwest Kansas as a series of tornadoes dipped down, destroying homes and injuring at least two people in the Quinter area -- one of them seriously.

All told, an estimated 20 tornadoes touched down Friday, in Gove, Sheridan, Ness, Rooks and Ellis counties. Thursday night, 23 tornadoes touched down in Gove, Sheridan, Decatur, Trego, Ness and Rooks counties -- a virtual carbon copy of Friday night's onslaught.

Friday, two people were injured in the Quinter area, according to Gove County Emergency Management Director George "Pappy" Lies. Two other people were injured Thursday, receiving minor injuries when the camper they were in at WaKeeney overturned, tossing them out onto the ground.

Friday, a Quinter resident was injured and hospitalized overnight when he was struck by a 2-by-4 piece of lumber as he tried to call his dog into the house to take shelter.

The second person was seriously injured when the vehicle he was driving eastbound on Interstate 70 essentially drove into a tornado that was crossing the highway.

The vehicle was tossed over the westbound lane and "probably 90 feet from the interstate," Lies said. The vehicle came to rest in a drainage ditch on the north side of I-70.

"The vehicle was in a foot and a half of water," Lies said of the water that was in the ditch at the time he arrived, the first responder on the scene. The rising water had come up below his waist when the driver was extricated from the vehicle.

"He was seriously injured," Lies said.

Lies is unsure why the man drove into the tornado.

"You could see the tornado," he said. "There wasn't any rain around it."

There were no injuries at the Augustine farm about 5 miles southwest of Ellis in rural Trego County.

But there was plenty of damage, and family members gathered to sift through debris Saturday morning.

One of two tornadoes that roared through the area leveled the double-wide trailer house of Leonard "Junior" and Cheryl Augustine.

Brother Mike Augustine, who lives just down the road, caught somewhat of a glancing blow from both twisters. His home was still standing, but the outbuildings and barn nearby were destroyed.

"We were in the basement for the first one that damaged some trees and buildings," Mike Augustine said. "We came upstairs afterwards to plug in our cell phones that were almost dead, when I saw the second one coming. We went back down and covered ourselves in blankets and pillows. I couldn't believe what was happening out there.

"It took everything but the house."

There also were at least two tornadoes that hit Quinter Friday night, each one causing significant damage.

The first was spotted southwest of Quinter. It, Lies said, was responsible for damaging five to six homes.

The second tornado, the one that crossed I-70 and threw the vehicle into the ditch, damaged eight to 10 homes. Damage ranged from moderate to total destruction.

Lies said he had given National Weather Service damage assessment teams tours of the areas, but they had not yet determined the strength of the tornadoes.

The damage teams were dispatched early this morning to areas where tornadoes had been reported, according to Fred Stasser, meteorologist at the NWS in Goodland.

The tornadoes and high winds from Friday's storms also darkened a big portion of northwest Kansas, when a series of power poles -- large and small -- were toppled.

At least 40 poles holding up a 34,500-volt line feeding Ellis were knocked over, according to Midwest Energy spokesman Bob Helm.

Nine contract crews and all of Midwest's crews were dispatched to the scene to repair the lines and restore power,. Initially, Helm said Ellis might not have power until sometime today.

By Saturday afternoon, however, crews were hoping to have power back on by day's end.

Thirteen of the large H-shaped structures that support the 69,000-volt lines feeding the Ellis substation operated by Western Cooperative Electric were knocked to the ground by tornadoes that swept through the Cedar Bluff Reservoir area, locking on target to the city of Ellis.

Power for customers of the cooperative served by that substation -- including Cedar Bluff State Park and the north and south shore cabin areas -- could take some time to repair, according to Western spokesman Dennis Deines.

All of Western crews are in the field, as are 24 employees from private contractors and six crew members from Prairie Land Electric. They will be joined by crews from Sunflower Electric.

In addition to the large structure, Deines said another 150 poles are down in the Quinter and Ellis areas.

After the tornadoes swept through Quinter, Lies said they headed north, into Sheridan County.

There, Emergency Management Director Jackie Boultinghouse said she had been stymied in making damage assessments because of the muddy roads.

Instead, the Kansas Highway Patrol planned to send its plane into the air to do an aerial survey of the area.

Again, in a virtual repeat from Thursday night, another five homes were damaged in Sheridan County Friday. There were four or five homes damaged to varying degrees on Thursday, Boultinghouse said.

To the north of there, in Decatur County, damage from Thursday night's bout with severe weather is expected to total nearly $1 million, what with damage to homes and the Decatur County Feed Yard.

The full extent of damages from Friday's storm has not been determined, in part because of difficulties that have been encountered in trying to get around the area.

Norton County is something of a prime example of problems associated with rains.

There, more than 7 inches of rain had fallen Thursday and Friday.

"Right now, it's just mainly water problems," said Norton County Sheriff's deputy Bob Annon said.

There, Prairie Dog Creek was sending water into Keith Sebelius Reservoir, and some low-lying areas in the Lenora and Edmond areas were facing flooding.

At the reservoir, water levels had already climbed 3 feet as of Saturday morning, Annon said.

"They're expected perhaps another 3 feet of water today and tonight," he said.

* Photo editor Steven Hausler contributed to this report.