Last week I was on the road for work (as I often am) and found myself as homesick as ever thinking about my wife and 14-month-old son back in Wichita. By the morning of Saturday April 14th, I had been in Richmond, VA for a week and was very ready to fly home the following morning. I had no idea of the impending doom swirling towards my new home of Wichita, KS. Tornadoes.
Everywhere I’ve lived has had its own threats; in New York City I witnessed 9-11 first hand, sweated it out through the blackout, and hunkered down through a few hurricanes. In California we had our share of earthquakes, mudslides, and wild fires. Now in Wichita we have returned to the threat I grew up with: Tornadoes. Tornadoes are unpredictable and vigilantly destructive…death from above. I’ve seen cars get wrapped around telephone polls, flying semi trucks, blades of grass pierce glass windows, and entire houses get tossed aside as if they were made of cardboard. A tornado can obliterate your neighbor’s house and skip yours without harming a shingle on your roof. They can swirl down from the sky suddenly or dissipate into the clouds without reason. They are scary, though like anything you become complacent to them after experiencing them enough times…until one makes a bee line for your wife and son while you are half a continent away. Then they are the scariest thing on earth.
At 8 PM on Saturday I was with my fellow co-workers toasting a successful day and telling war stories from our past events. Pizzas were consumed, scotches were cheers’d, and feet were kicked up…it was a good day. Then the text came to my phone from the emergency alert system I subscribe to:
“TORNADO WARNING IN EFFECT FOR SEDWICK COUNTY UNTIL 04/14/2012 22:15 BTYB SUNFLOWER BANK”
While I have seen alerts like this many times it is slightly unnerving when you are not there to be with your family. I called Kate who was as relaxed as can be which was good for my nerves. “They’ve been talking about this storm all week and its been on the news everywhere the whole day telling people to be prepared for tonight.” Kate had brought all the patio furniture in, setup the pack and play in the basement for Max to sleep in, and set aside a few emergency items downstairs as well. One of the key reasons I bought this house was the fact that the main level has 2 steel beams supporting the house as well as a full cement foundation and massive interior brick fireplace. Meaning? The basement is a great tornado shelter. Kate is one of the most resourceful people I know…the kind that can solve any problem she is faced with on her own. She had Max’s bike helmet to protect his head from flying debris and his backpack carrying case so she should strap him to her body if need be. I never thought we’d need any of these things but she was right to prepare.
I flipped on the Weather Channel in Richmond and found that Wichita was getting national coverage as the storm headed towards my city. The tornado was just hitting Conway Springs as I watched this and was on a path for the west side of Wichita. I realized my dad was scheduled to be landing in Wichita from Atlanta at this time so I called him to see where he was – I assumed rerouted to Dallas. He had somehow just landed in Wichita on what sounded like the scariest landing of all time that included a wind gust that pushed the plane completely sideways at a 90 degree angle just above the ground! (Read story HERE) They had landed only to find the entire ground crew had taken cover in the shelter – they were stuck on the plane. After 10 minutes they finally were able to get off the plane and head for cover. My dad hopped into the car to head east just as the National Weather service announced the tornado was on a path for the Wichita airport and would arrive in 8 minutes. He described to me what he was seeing and what was headed his way which quickly raised my dad threat level to orange, I was becoming very nervous for my family.
I called back to Kate and updated her on my dad. She told me she had moved to the basement and was debating taking Max out of the pack and play and into the shelter she had made of pillows and tables. At that point the power went out and I lost communication with my family. Text messages were our only means of communication and they were sporadic in their timing. The tornado hit the airport. My dad had escaped it by maybe 5 minutes and was racing it down the highway. The tornado hit the south side of Wichita and as it entered the city limits the details as to where it was became cloudy as all storm chasers and reporters were under ground saving their lives. The Topeka office took over reporting and I watched in horror as the path of the storm curled north and east on a direct line for my house. One of my co-workers asked where my house was in Wichita. At that exact moment the Weather Channel put up a map with an arrow that showed the path of the F-3 tornado…the end of the arrow lay directly on top of my house. “Right there I said,” as I pointed to the arrow, “…that’s where my house is.” I tried calling Kate…home phone rang and rang. Tried her cell…straight to voicemail. I texted her, “Heading directly for you!” I then got a few texts back from Kate as I watched the storm head straight for my house, my wife, and my son.”
Hail picking up!
Emergency alert says “complete devastation of some neighborhoods likely!”
Power must be out, no more sound from TV upstairs.
Then, just as it was about to come barreling into my neighborhood it made a turn to the east. I started to breathe a sigh of relief…it was almost passed. Kate then texted me again,
K. Really quiet…Just hear a distant rumble & Max breathing.
I tried calling Kate but no calls would go through.
Power still out. No word from your mom yet. Can hear sirens from police/ambulance cars.
Then I got this terrible feeling like everything in the room went cold. Deja Vu. It was like watching the 1991 Andover tornado all over again…it was the exact same path! In 1991 I lived in Andover and can still remember the devastation from the F-5 that tore apart our town and killed over 20 people. It was creepy and horrifying watching this tornado take the same path. Though my house in College Hill was safe from this tornado – the house I grew up in (where my parents still live) was now directly in the path of destruction. The weather channel reported a sighting at Kellogg and K-96, only an 1/8th of a mile from my parents. I called them and was able to get to my dad via an old rotary phone in the basement…he and my mother were fine but the tornado was bearing down directly over them. Then…it was over.
The tornado had dissipated down to an F-1 and caused only minimal damage to their house and trees. It pushed northeast. The rain stopped. All was quiet on the western front again.
Upon returning home, Wichita was fine though some neighborhoods, businesses, and the airforce base had taken direct hits and sustained serious damage. Flooding was the biggest issue but a sunny Sunday helped quickly resolve that problem. My family greeted me at the airport and I have never been so glad to be home. Having lived through many tornadoes I had become complacent to their damage…but this reminded me of their unpredictable nature and how deadly they can be. They are raw potential for destruction and my house and family were spared…this time. From now on I will have a tornado kit in the basement at all times during tornado season. I live in Wichita, KS…Tornado Alley. We must be prepared – for it is always better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it.