It could have been much worse.
That sentiment echoed Wednesday across Ellis County as residents began to asses the damage from a severe storm Tuesday night that brought down trees, blew over semi trucks, downed power lines, tore the roof off a church and delayed the first day of classes at Hays USD 489.
Bill Turner, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Dodge City, said much of the damage was from straight-line winds gusting up to 80 mph over an extended period of time. There were no tornadoes or funnel clouds detected.
“The overall wind is so strong, intense and widespread, you’ll never know the difference anyway,” he said.
Additionally, the wind was not just one big gust, but repeated gusts over about 20 to 30 minutes.
“The initial gust weakens trees and structures, and that’s one thing, but if it’s gusting five, 15, 20 minutes, that’s really going to start blowing stuff around, so I think that’s what happened in Hays,” Turner said.
A 78 mph gust at the Hays Regional Airport was recorded at 7:55 p.m., but radar indicated gusts at 80 mph or more, Turner said.
A swath of damage occurred north of Hays in the area of 230th Avenue. Midwest Energy utility poles were blown down on a half-mile stretch of the road north of exit 157 on Interstate 70 commencing from Celebration Community Church.
Those high-speed gusts swept the metal roof off the church, leaving a large piece wrapped around a light pole in the parking lot. One piece lay in a field near the interstate, a distance of about 1,000 feet.
The inside of the worship center received considerable water damage, which Senior Pastor Brant Rice said likely means that the 16,000-square-foot expansion built less than two years ago will have to be demolished. The church does have insurance on the building.
No one was at the church when the storm hit, as evening Bible study had been canceled due to the impending weather, he said.
Weekend services will be conducted in some form, he said, but Wednesday morning he wasn’t sure where. Peak attendance during the school year can reach 1,100 people among the church’s four Sunday services.
“We may have one large service depending on where we decide to do it, depending on the weather,” Rice said outside the church Wednesday morning as heavy equipment and volunteers scooped up soggy insulation from the parking lot.
“We’ve talked about having a service in the parking lot of the church or in front of the church, just what helps to get everybody together,” he said.
The church’s gym is a possibility, he said, but he wasn’t sure it would be large enough, especially with many Fort Hays State University students coming to town.
“This is the weekend everybody comes back to church, not just at our church, but I’m sure every church, so that’s the reason we really want to have it out here,” he said.
“As bad as it is, as many hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages that I’m sure that there is, it could be so much worse. It didn’t blow the building away, and we’ve got about 50,000-plus square feet of building here, so we’ve got other parts of the building that were lightly damaged that we can use for other things."
Darin Myers, Ellis County Emergency Management director and rural fire chief, said responders first started going out around 7:45 p.m. and returned to stations around 12:30 a.m.
Much of the damage was from the western edge of Hays west and included about 10 vehicles, mostly semi trucks, that were blown over by winds. Initial reports were of 20 semis toppled, but Meyers said that going through the reports, it appeared to be actually fewer than 10.
Not too far from Celebration Church, winds also brought down a Midwest Energy 230 kilovolt transmission line across the interstate.
“That’s a double structure and what we call an H-structure,” said Mike Morley, director of corporate communications for Midwest Energy.
“The wind snapped the poles off on the south side of the interstate and brought those wires down to ground level.”
A passing vehicle hit the lines and went into the ditch and a semi came to a halt with the lines on top of the truck.
Morley said it took crews about a half hour to get to the scene due to all the traffic, and took about three hours to clear the power lines. No one was injured.
In addition to the power lines along 230th Avenue, another 15 to 20 poles came down along Fairground Road. The main lines into Ellis were downed as well, cutting power to the entire town.
Crews from Hoxie, Colby and WaKeeney were in Ellis County on Wednesday to repair the lines. Power was returned to all but 1,500 customers by 11:30 a.m.
Midwest Energy crews were also responding to reports in Hays and Ellis of downed service lines in yards or limbs on power lines.
Morley said people should remain patient for crews to restore power with massive outages like this one.
“Everybody that we have that’s not on vacation is out working this. They’ve been working since 9 o’clock last night and they’ll probably be on it until 9 or 10 o’clock tonight,” he said.
Anyone who had gone 12 hours without power should call Midwest Energy at 1-800-222-3121, even if they have already called, he said.
“We want to make sure nobody’s outage gets overlooked. But rest assured, we will get there. It’s just a matter of working through this big list that we have,” he said.
Back in Hays, the first day of classes at USD 489 were postponed to Thursday after windows were blown out at Hays Middle School, and the Learning Center, 323 W. 12th, had a foot or so of water.
Both had been quickly cleaned up by Wednesday morning and would be ready for classes on Thursday, said Chris Hipp, special education director, as he and Kyle Carlin, special education coordinator, visited with DiRae Boyd, special education teacher at HMS.
Hail broke out three windows of her classroom and left hundreds of dents in siding and an external door, while water covered much of the floor.
HMC janitorial crew members worked late into Tuesday night removing the water, and Boyd and several of her paraprofessionals were in the classroom early Wednesday to clean and get re-organized for the delayed start. She was relieved her students would be able to start the new school year in their usual classroom.
“Last night when I got the call, I was worried that my students were going to have to learn in the library, and that takes away that excitement of the first day when you have to shuffle things,” she said.
“So when they called and said they were cancelling, I felt a better,” she said.
She had a lot of anxiety Wednesday morning, though.
“Coming in this morning, knowing that we had worked very hard as a staff to be ready for the first day, and we’re just going to have to redo everything,” she said.
Fortunately, classroom laptops and iPads, normally kept on top of cabinets under the windows, were not damaged, she said. Some workbooks were, but those can be reprinted in the district’s copy center.
In Ellis, damage included uprooted trees — some damaging houses — and downed limbs. Part of a wall at the baseball fields was blown down.
At the football field, trees along the fence crashed onto the fence on the north and south sides, damaging one of the filed goals, and on the nearby old high school, the brick facade on one wall was partially blown off.
Updated 2:50 p.m. Aug. 14 with additional information.
Original story posted 10:47 p.m. Aug. 13
A severe thunderstorm that hit Ellis County and the surrounding area Tuesday evening left thousands without power and caused heavy damage.
Wednesday was to be the first day of classes in Hays USD 489, but the district has postponed classes until Thursday due to damage at the middle school. Elementary schools will have a half day on Thursday and the middle and high schools will have a full day, according to an email from the school district.
Around 6,000 customers were reported without power by Midwest Energy. At 10:15 p.m., it reported on its Facebook page that a transmission line came down on top of a semi on Interstate 70 about 2 miles west of Hays and was a priority for their crews. The interstate was closed while crews worked on that issue, but many had already stopped along the interstate when the storm hit around 7:30 p.m.
The Dodge City National Weather Service reported a 78 mph wind gust measure at Hays, with radar indications of gusts 80 to 85 mph were likely.
Many cars were stopped on the interstate in both lanes for an hour or more as the storm continued with heavy rain, wind and large hail. Reports to the Ellis County emergency dispatch indicated 20 semis blown off the roads throughout the county.
A car was reported in the canal in the 2900 block of Canal Boulevard, but no injuries or rescue were reported.
The main power line into Ellis was knocked down, and Midwest Energy also reported damage to seven structures near the I-70 bypass. Celebration Community Church in that area also sustained heavy damage.
Watch for more information at HDNnews.net as it becomes available.