Devastation and disbelief

Tornado kills 9, leaves Kansas town in ruins

Most of Greensburg, a southwest Kansas town of 1,500 people, was destroyed by a tornado overnight Friday. At least nine people died, officials said Saturday, amid a wave of more severe weather. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is prepared to help with damage assessment.

? A fresh wave of tornadoes ripped through southwest Kansas Saturday evening, a day after a tornado destroyed this town, killing nine and injuring dozens more.

The National Weather Service in Dodge City said it had received reports “well into the double digits” of twisters touching down in Stafford, Pratt, Comanche, Kiowa, Edwards and Pawnee counties.

Among them were a series of half-mile wide “wedge” tornadoes – similar to the one that destroyed Greensburg – including two northwest of St. John in western Stafford County, said meteorologist Mike Umscheid.

“We’re going to expect quite a lot of damage,” Umscheid said.

Emergency management officials in Stafford County were immediately available for comment.

Earlier Saturday, emergency crews called off the search in Greensburg for victims as the weather deteriorated.

Umscheid said the slow-moving storm system would likely to spawn severe weather early into this morning.

“It looks like it’s going to be another long night,” he said.

Greensburg residents spent Saturday picking through what was left of their community after the tornado that left most of their town in ruin.

Jackie Robertson, her husband and a friend spent Friday night in a cellar as the storm raged outside, killing at least nine people and injuring scores more. On Saturday, she gathered what she could – some wedding photos, a wallet, a family quilt – and reflected on what was lost.

“My heart just aches for everyone,” she said. “It is so surreal. This is where I live.”

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who plans to tour Greensburg on Sunday, praised Kansans for their response to the disaster.

“The outpouring of emergency response from state and local agencies and volunteers is just tremendous,” Sebelius said. “We as Kansans are pulling together as we always do in times of crisis and adversity, and that’s something we should all be proud of.”

95 percent destroyed

Greensburg, a town of 1,500 best known as the home of the world’s largest hand-dug well, emerged Saturday to a nightmare landscape of splintered homes and smashed vehicles, the air redolent with the strong smell of sap from trees stripped of bark.

City Administrator Steve Hewitt estimated 95 percent of the town was destroyed and predicted rescue efforts could take days as many survivors may still be trapped in basements and under rubble.

Among the only structures left standing was Bar H Tavern, the town’s only bar. It was converted into a makeshift morgue.

“We want everybody to know, and I plead to the American people as well as the people here in Kansas, this is a huge catastrophe that has happened to our small town,” Hewitt said during a news conference. “All my downtown is gone. My home is gone. My staff’s homes are gone. And we’ve got to find a way to get this to work and come to work every day and get this thing back on its feet. It’s going to be tough.”

State Rep. Dennis McKinney, the House minority leader and a Greensburg resident, said he hid in his basement with his daughter as the storm destroyed his house.

“It was very loud, but not as loud as I thought it would be,” McKinney said. “It was over in a minute or two, the devastation was so fast.”

He said he spent the evening and early morning conferring with emergency officials and helping search homes for survivors, although he noted “the inspections didn’t take that long because in the western part of town, there weren’t many homes left to inspect.”

20-minute warning

Residents said they heard the tornado warning sirens, a common feature of towns in “Tornado Alley,” about 20 minutes before the storm hit.

“We had ample warning and that’s why, with such huge devastation, that we’re fortunate that we didn’t have more fatalities than we had,” McKinney said.

Meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of damage was 1.4 miles wide and estimated that the tornado eventually will be classified an “upper F-4 or an F-5” tornado, the strongest possible. “I’m in downtown Greensburg. There’s really nothing left,” Ruthi said.

Jose Peraza said he was driving his oil rig into town when he heard the tornado warning sirens and pulled over to escape driving hail. He hid with several other people in a convenience store freezer.

He said the storm ripped the side off the freezer and when he came out, the twister had chucked his truck – with 40,000 pounds of oil – “like nothing.”

Dead and injured

Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department, said eight bodies had been recovered so far in Greensburg. She said a ninth victim was identified in Pratt County and officials are looking into reports of two other storm-related deaths.

Rescuers pulled about 30 people from a badly damaged hospital early Saturday with most of them suffering minor injuries, Watson said.

Scores of additional injured people were sent to hospitals as far away as Wichita, 110 miles away. More than 70 went to Pratt Regional Medical Center about 30 minutes away from Greensburg, with all but 14 treated and released, said hospital spokeswoman Kim Stivers.

Watson earlier estimated about 16 people were in critical condition, but acknowledged that it was difficult to nail down specific numbers.

“There is still a possibility we do not have all of the people accounted for in that town,” she said. “That is something we will be working feverishly to do over the next several hours.”

Dawn Kinsey, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency was preparing to help with such things as damage assessments if Kansas officials request the assistance.

“We’ve been in contact with them since the beginning,” Kinsey said. “We haven’t officially been requested by the state to assist at this point but we are standing by. We are positioning assets.”

Search-and-rescue efforts were hampered by downed communications towers and telephone lines, said Trooper Ronald Knoefel of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

White House response

The White House said President Bush was briefed on the situation by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend. Bush hoped to speak later with Sebelius, who already had consulted with Federal Emergency Management Agency Director R. David Paulison.

“The president’s thoughts and prayers are with the people of Greensburg and all of those who have suffered loss and injury,” David Almacy, a White House spokesman, said Saturday.

Mandatory evacuation

Dazed residents walked the streets, looking for loved ones and taking in the sight of crumbled buildings and smashed cars.

Hewitt described massive damage: City Hall, the high school and junior high school, the water tower and most of the commercial district, all destroyed.

“I don’t think we have a business left downtown,” he said.

He said a mandatory evacuation was ordered.

Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County, said her spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran.

“It’s possible that we could add five additional counties,” Corcoran said. “But we’re not sure yet at this point so right now I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that an emergency disaster has been declared for Kiowa County.”

Ruthi, with the National Weather Service in Dodge City, said the storm system spawned at least three significant tornadoes, including the one that hit Greensburg. He said there were likely other smaller twisters.

Emergency medical crews, law enforcement personnel and search and rescue teams from throughout western Kansas and as far east as Wichita raced toward Greensburg after the twister struck. The Kansas National Guard sent 40 troops to assist with security.

Power and communications in the town of about 1,600 people were knocked out by the tornado. Watson said the state transportation department sent its Communications on Wheels mobile unit to restore 911 service.

Roads into and out of Greensburg, including U.S. 54, were closed for several hours to allow emergency vehicles to maneuver. Some streets were left impassable by tangles of fallen cable.