Season of Skywatching Arrives

Kansas Viewpoint

Too many dates stand out to ignore the very real danger of the season we're in

Published on: April 25, 2011
I arrived in Wichita on April 18, 1990, a time when everybody was still talking about "the Hesston tornado."

This massive twister stood out because it was the first "big one" in more than a decade and everyone was beginning to think maybe the climate had changed and Kansas was no longer destined to be home to the worst that "tornado alley" could deliver.

It hit early, March 13, 1990. Most really bad ones come between April 15 and June 1.

It wouldn't be long before I would have my own "live" accounts. Haysville, McConnell Air Force Base, South Wichita and Andover were hit April 26, 1991. Haysville and South Wichita were hit again on May 4 in 1999. And Hoisington in 2001. And of course, the BIG one, Greensburg on May 4, 2007.

In 1995, Wichita Eagle colleague, Stan Finger, and I spent an afternoon with the survivors of the great Udall tornado of 1955. It hit on May 25 at about 10:30 p.m. and literally destroyed the town. In fact, the complete devastation of a Kansas town would not be repeated until Greensburg.

It was eery to sit and listen to people re-tell that night of living hell, many of them talking to each other about what happened that night for the first time in 40 years. The story I remember best is the man who talked of hearing a strange scratching, thumping noise and turning to see his sister-in-law walking toward him, a 2x4 driven through her side. It was dragging and thumping as she walked. She was 7 months pregnant. But, he said, she and every other woman in Udall who was pregnant that night, went on to deliver full-term, healthy, babies.

That conversation has never left my mind. I find it so amazing that on a night when 83 people died and a town was literally wiped off the map, not a single unborn child was lost.

There was story after story of people huddled in the only part of a structure left standing and of the sorrow of losing all the history, all the homes, all the trees.

Twelve years later, I arrived in Greensburg at dawn on May 5. I was diverted to Haviland until press credentialing could was organized and talked to the walking wounded at shelters for a few hours; seeing the first-day faces that reminded me so much of the Udall survivors 40 years later.

"This," I remember thinking, "is never going to be OVER. These people are combat survivors."

And so it is in tornado season in Kansas. We live in the shadow of the last big one and on the horizon of the next one. We keep an eye on the sky, the batteries on the video camera charged, spare batteries for the radio at hand and the NWS website on our "Favorites" list and the safe room stocked.

And by the way, as I told my readers at the Wichita Eagle years ago: Ignore much of the Red Cross emergency list about canned food and potable water. Make SURE your safe room has these items: pick-ax, hiking shoes or heavy boots, blankets, coach's whistle, flashlights, battery radio and shovel. And a fully-charged spare battery for the cell phone isn't a bad idea.