County’s largest tornado in decades injured 17 people, damaged more than 60 homes, officials say
photo by: John English/Special to the Journal-World
The mile-wide tornado that skirted Lawrence Tuesday night — Douglas County’s largest twister in decades — injured 17 people and left more than 60 damaged homes in its wake, authorities said Wednesday.
After touching down south of Lawrence about 6:15 p.m., the destructive tornado stayed on the ground for more than 31 miles, continuing northeast before lifting in Leavenworth County, according to the National Weather Service.
Fortunately, authorities say, early warnings helped minimize harm to residents despite the sweeping property damage.
“They heard the sirens, they knew the weather was coming,” Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern said Wednesday. “They paid attention, they got in the basement.”
Though no one was killed, three of the 17 people hurt suffered injuries serious enough to require hospitalization, McGovern said.
With winds reaching an estimated 170 mph, the tornado was designated an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita wind intensity rating scale by the National Weather Service. An EF-5 is the highest rating on the scale. The calculation involves surveying structures to determine what wind-loads they could withstand and comparing that to how badly they were damaged.
The storm strengthened as it traveled northeast, National Weather Service of Topeka meteorologist Kris Craven said.
The survey on Wednesday identified numerous points of EF-3 level damage in Douglas County and a structure with EF-4 level damage in Leavenworth County, all left by the same tornado, Craven said.
The last time Douglas County had an F-4 tornado was 1952, and the county’s last F-3 tornado was in 1981, according to historical data from the weather service (which previously used an F scale before the EF scale was adopted).
After the storm passed Tuesday night, first responders did a “primary search” of about 200 homes, and on Wednesday conducted a “secondary search” that was expected to continue until around dusk, Wakarusa Township Fire Department Chief Mike Baxter said.
Of 160 homes searched by early afternoon Wednesday, over 40 were heavily damaged, and another 20 to 25 sustained moderate damage, Baxter said. He said over 90 homes assessed had light to no damage.
In addition to homes, the tornado ravaged area landmarks including Pendleton’s Country Market, 1446 East 1850 Road in Douglas County, and Free State Growers, a century-old wholesale greenhouse just north of Linwood, in Leavenworth County.
The single “parent storm” that produced the tornado crept across eastern Kansas and into northwestern Missouri Tuesday evening, Craven said. The National Weather Service of Kansas City reported a second touchdown, ranked an EF-2, near Kearney, Mo., northeast of Kansas City.
That path helped authorities issue warnings to residents about half an hour before the storm hit, Craven said.
She said that the “super-cell” storm — one likely to produce large, damaging tornadoes — started east of Emporia and that the weather service issued its first tornado warning in that area at 4:39 p.m., for Osage and Lyon counties.
Over the next hours, tornado warnings moved northeast, with the storm following.
By 5:41 p.m., a tornado warning for Franklin and Douglas counties was issued, with a tornado confirmed on the ground at 6:11 p.m., Craven said.
Shortly, the National Weather Service upgraded its warning to a “tornado emergency.”
That designation is rare, and serious, Craven said. She said it’s often used when a verified tornado is headed for a heavily populated area, in this case the city of Lawrence.
“At that point we know it’s on the ground, we know it’s doing damage, so we know it’s a life-threatening situation,” Craven said.
Though it came close, this tornado did not hit inside the Lawrence city limits.
McGovern said it first struck south of town, near U.S. Highway 56. The tornado then went through the Shank Hill residential development, crossed U.S. Highway 59, crossed Kansas Highway 10, and damaged more houses on the west side of Eudora before continuing out of Douglas County toward Linwood.
A majority of the injuries came from storm-related vehicle accidents, including vehicles overturned by wind, according to the sheriff’s office. Officials found that few of the people injured were in damaged structures.
Douglas and Leavenworth counties have been added to a state disaster proclamation signed by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, her office announced Wednesday afternoon.
In addition to Douglas County first responders, fire departments and law enforcement agencies from neighboring counties came in to help.
Much of the storm-ravaged area remained blocked by law enforcement Wednesday afternoon.
Authorities said that was to keep people safe from hazards such as downed power lines and jagged metal debris, and to keep paths clear for repair crews and insurance adjusters to get in.
Law enforcement also wants to keep looters out. McGovern said there had been some reports of thieves “pilfering” damaged homes.
McGovern said the tornado was devastating to a number of Douglas County residents.
“I’ve seen several of them — they’ve lost everything,” he said. “They’re trying to get their lives back together at the moment.”
photo by: Contributed photo by John Hoopes