Archive for Thursday, May 12, 2005

After five years, memories linger

Tonganoxie marks anniversary of May 11, 2000, tornado

May 12, 2005

Chuck Magaha's keeping his eyes to the skies.

In his 17 years as Leavenworth County's director of emergency management, Magaha has tracked at least 17 tornadoes.

One of those was the Tonganoxie tornado, which raged through town at 9:55 p.m., five years ago today.

Those who were here will never forget.

The day had been hot, muggy and windy. It was nearly bedtime when the sirens sounded.

Severe storms had been reported in Jefferson County. The tornado warning sirens, sounded at about 9:30 p.m., gave residents ample time -- about 20 minutes -- to take shelter.

The tornado roared into town, starting at the top of Hubbel Hill where in seconds an entire farmstead -- house and outbuildings -- disappeared. Nearby, the twister ripped the backside off of a new two-story home, and just a couple of houses away, flattened a metal barn. Trees broke like toothpicks. The swirling dark gray cloud swept eastward, hurtling down the hill into Tonganoxie where it flattened buildings at the fairgrounds, and on a jagged trip through town, twisted houses on their foundations and sheared trees to the ground.

Amazingly, no one was injured that night.

Radio silence

All evening long, Magaha had been tracking the storms building to the west.

"I was listening to Jefferson County's emergency management and their spotters communicating with us, and then listening to our spotters getting excited -- with frightfulness," Magaha said. "They were looking at harm's way, right down the path that was about to engulf them."

The radio fell silent.

"When you hear that much information getting exchanged, then you don't hear anything on any radio for about five minutes, you just think, OK did we just blow everybody off the face of the earth," Magaha said.

With a wave of relief, Magaha heard the voice of Tonganoxie storm spotter Charlie Conrad, who'd been silent as he knelt in a ditch while the tornado raged overhead.

Flood of reports

Then, Magaha began hearing reports of the damage.

"The reports just started getting overwhelming," Magaha said. "People saying my house has been hit, the fairgrounds has been hit, the schools have been hit, businesses have been hit. It was like -- oh my gosh."

Magaha, and his assistant, Debbie Winetroub, headed to Tonganoxie. While Winetroub established a command center at the county annex, Magaha took a look at the devastation.

He knew more help was needed than what local law enforcement could offer. He called neighboring counties, asking for aid. They responded.

"We had 45 law enforcement agencies there in less than an hour," Magaha said.

Though it was determined the tornado was an F1, the damage was great.

"It was a big eye opener," Magaha said. "This was a relatively weak tornado that came through here, we're talking about an F1 tornado. ... There was a lot of tree damage and some major structure damage. I was in awe of how many trees were down and how it was like a maze trying to get through town."

Streetlights were out. It was pouring rain. Power lines were down.

But as the reports came in, Magaha breathed a little easier. That night, no injuries were reported.

"I'm always amazed that we don't have any more injuries than we do," Magaha said. "The warnings that we have in place, the electronic media, warning sirens and the alertness of the people in the area -- it's just overwhelming."

But tragically, the next day, as residents were cleaning up from the storm, there was a fatality. About 11 a.m. 4-year-old Kaela Hummburg, Lawrence, was killed when a porch at a house on Tonganoxie's Sixth Street collapsed on her.

Kaela was taken by helicopter to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.

Be on the alert

Another severe tornado struck the area on May 4, 2003.

This tornado skirted Tonganoxie, devastating a housing addition near 166th Street and Kansas Avenue.

In moments, four homes disappeared and numerous other houses were damaged.

"That tornado started out as an F1 and got up to about F3," Magaha said of its southern Leavenworth County touch down.

"And when it got down to Wyandotte County, it went to an F4 stage."

Magaha recalled the frantic atmosphere of the afternoon, noting that when the tornado struck in southern Leavenworth County, another was cutting a path through the northeast part of the county.

"There were two tornadoes on the ground at the same time," Magaha said.

The afternoon storms injured two people in Leavenworth County, and in Wyandotte County, they claimed two lives.

Magaha is a big believer in weather radios. Every home should have one, he said.

The radios can be programmed for weather information and storm alerts in particular areas. This is especially important for rural residents who may live far from a tornado siren. Through an agreement with Price Chopper grocery stores and Midland Radio, the radios can be purchased at area Price Chopper stores for $29.95.

"I don't care where you put them (weather radios)," Magaha said. "But consider them being the smoke detectors of severe weather."

Close brush

Though other tornadoes have crossed the area in Magaha's 17 years with the county, the twisters of May 11, 2000, and May 4, 2003 are the most significant, he said.

And, though Magaha has tracked plenty of tornadoes on radar, he's yet to see one in person.

"I haven't seen any of them yet," Magaha said. "The closest I've come to them was one that went over Tonganoxie probably in about 1997. High school graduation was going on and they had two funnels -- they came together as one off of County Road 1 just south of Tonganoxie."

Naturally, the high school filled with people was a concern, Magaha said.

"I sent Charlie Conrad to tell folks they needed to take cover," Magaha said. "It touched down just north of the high school and came back up."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.