Kansas town remembers tornado 10 years later
CHAPMAN — It took less than a minute for Kent Mills to lose nine buildings, two grain bins, a cattle corral, a pasture fence and multiple farm vehicles and machinery.
Just after 10:30 p.m. on June 11, 2008, the Chapman farmer and rancher apprehensively walked toward his home, amazed it was still standing after a devastating tornado had just finished leveling much of his town.
The house was still standing all right, but were his wife and two small boys OK?
“A half mile from my house was all the farther I could drive,” said Mills, who also was chief of the Chapman Fire Department and had been out on a fire call just prior to the tornado. “There were tree limbs, trees and power poles in the road. When I got to my homestead, there wasn’t anything left except my house. I was cussing and praying at the same time, wondering if my wife and kids were still alive.”
As he approached his house, Mills saw his wife Sarah climb out of the basement. She told her husband “a pretty good windstorm” had shook the house, then realized there were no windows or walls in the interior of the house. Sons Kevin, then 6, and Kyle, 3, thankfully were sleeping safely in the basement.
As the morning sun rose, Kent Mills surveyed the damage to his home: all but one window on the south side was blown out and shattered throughout the living room and bedrooms; Milo stalks, leaves and shards of wood littered the house, and a leaf stem was drilled into a piece of woodwork; and most disturbingly, a piece of lumber had pierced the house from the outside, blew out a door frame and crashed into the house just six inches from Kyle’s crib.
“It was like being punched in the gut,” Kent Mills told the Salina Journal .
Ten years ago, Kent Mills and his family, along with several hundred residents of the small town east of Salina and Abilene, survived a tornado categorized as an EF3, capable of producing winds up to 160 mph. The tornado, which entered the Chapman city limits at about 10:23 p.m., ripped through town in under a minute but left in its wake a landscape of devastation.
Kent Mills, along with several other tornado survivors, recently reflected on that fateful night 10 years ago.
Nearly 70 homes were totally destroyed by the tornado, and about half of the estimated 550 homes in Chapman sustained significant damage. Chapman High School was reduced to rubble. The middle and elementary schools and district office were severely damaged, and the roof to the district gymnasium was ripped off.
“It was unbelievable when you went through our community how bad it really was,” said retired Chapman school superintendent Tony Frieze. “It was heartbreaking for me to see our District Education Center and all three schools in utter ruin.”
Most buildings that housed businesses in downtown Chapman were either destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. Londeen’s Funeral Chapel was destroyed. The community building Sterl Hall was used as a shelter for more than 200 displaced people.
One woman, 21-year-old Crystal P. Bishop, died while trying to escape the tornado, and the death of resident Phil Scanlan on June 19, 2008, was determined to be caused by health-related problems and tornado-related stress.
Although the lives of almost everyone in the community had been uprooted, the rebuilding process began the very next day.
“We had an unreal amount of services and agencies and volunteers showing up to assist us with the recovery,” Kent Mills said.
Kent Mills told his parents, who built his house in 1950, that because of the type of construction wood they’d used, the structure had stayed sound despite the damage done. He and his family were able to continue living in the home until repairs were completed later that year.
“Everything can be rebuilt,” he said. “I got deep roots here. I was born here, and I was going to stay here.”
Kent Mills said the tornado is something he’ll never forget and hopes he’ll never encounter again.
“The crazy thing about tornados is there’s no rhyme or reason what it will destroy and what it will leave alone,” he said. “Most of my house was gone, but I had paper money lying on my nightstand, and it was still there after the tornado.”
Frieze said students in the Chapman School District started school as planned in August, although they would be displaced into 24 temporary modular classrooms for two-and-a-half years while new school buildings were constructed with the help of an $8.1 million dollar bond project.
“The school board needed to get this going, and they did a great job,” Frieze said. “Seventy percent of our community supported the bond issue. They knew we needed our schools rebuilt. Students knew how important it was that they stick with us.”
Jon Londeen not only lost his funeral home, but the roof of his downtown hardware and furniture store was sheared off, damaging $30,000 worth of mattresses. A good portion of his home also was destroyed.
“I was out of town the night it happened,” he said. “I got a call that said I hate to give you bad news, but the funeral home is gone and there’s a good chance you lost your house and a good chunk of the store. Oh, and Chapman’s a mess.”
When Londeen came back to Salina, he was astonished at how much damage had been done.
“Everyone in town was in the same shape as we were,” he said. “I had to run the store on a generator so we could use the cash register. We were swamped with business because everyone’s house was damaged. It was unreal.”
Chapman eventually rebuilt and has new housing developments, a new grocery store and a public storm shelter in the center of town. The popular television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” even came to town to build a new home from scratch for residents Crystal and Patrick Tutwiler, although they ended up selling the home and moving out of town soon after.
Stories of many of the residents who survived the tornado were detailed in a 2009 book called “Tornado Tales of Fear, Faith and Courage,” compiled by Julie Barkl Darsow and Verlene Makalous Jackson and published by Mennonite Press of Newton.
Bob Diehl and Joan Atkinson, who were profiled in the book, said they were at a Chapman City Council meeting when they were informed a storm was coming their way. Diehl had the key to a storm shelter at the high school gymnasium, and they opened it after a radio warning told residents to take cover. Nearly 100 people showed up at the shelter, some of them with dogs, cats, birds and even snakes.
Diehl said the shelter door started to quiver, and the next thing he knew the roof was pulled off the south side of the gym.
“After the storm, everybody was wet and scared,” Diehl said. “I tried to find a dry place. I didn’t realize the school was destroyed. In my search for a dry place, I fell and broke my kneecap. Three operations later, and I still have pain. But it was worth it, because Joan and I helped save some lives.”
Diehl said he never had a doubt the community would rebuild and make Chapman an even better place to live than it was before.
“We had a wonderful response from FEMA, and it’s amazing how the community and people in other communities jumped in to help us,” he said. “It was quite a ride, I’ll tell you that. But I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”