Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 27, 2012

Storm watchers

Folks gathered under uncertain skies a couple of weeks ago for the grand opening of Manhattan’s Flint Hills Discovery Center. While many had long anticipated visiting the local history and education facility, husband Art and I were there mainly to see daughter Katie perform the national anthem with her Kansas State University a cappella group.

With the singing done, Art and Katie left, but I stayed, hoping the winds wouldn’t blow the rest of us away. Meteorologists across the country were predicting major storms for the Midwest. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback urged the crowd to prepare for tornadoes later in the day. With boiling dark clouds to the west, I felt it was a bit ironic when the Western Music Association singers belted out the “Home on the Range” line - “and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

But angry skies are as much a part of Kansas as clear ones, and we know what to do when churning gray clouds roll in and the air is heavy. The worst times are the hours following sunset when the cooling upper air begins to fall. So I wasn’t surprised when I arrived home mid-afternoon to find Topeka television station WIBW still had regular programming. The small map inserted in a corner indicated locations where conditions were right for tornadoes to form.

Katie had been planning to come home for the night, so I hoped she’d get there soon. Art was keeping an eye on the weather at work via the Internet and periodically informed me of what to expect. At 2:51, I sent Katie a text message: “Dad says could get rain soon. Be careful!” I followed with another at 2:54: “If it’s raining hard stay put and wait on dad. Let him know though.” Then, I texted him at 3:07: “Told kj to stay put if too stormy and come home with you! Told her to keep us posted.”

Katie made it home about supper-time. I then began to wonder about others. Oldest daughter Mariya and her wife Lacey live in an upper-level apartment. Neither knew whether there was a storm shelter nearby. But Art’s work place is close. It has a basement and both girls have keys.

Brother Dave and family live in Salina; brother-in-law Gary and family and friends Deb and Joyce and families live in Wichita; brother-in-law Dave and family live in McPherson. They all have basements, so I figured they’d be OK. Mom has a basement too, but it’s hard for her to get up and down the steps. Aunt Edith lives in a third-floor apartment in Council Grove, and it also has a basement.

I texted Dave’s wife Linda, Deb and Joyce around 3:15: “Storms there?”

Deb’s response at 3:17: “National weather says Wichita has 90% chance tornado tonight. I have my emerg. bag ready for under the stairs.”

I asked what was in her bag and she replied: “LEDs contacts glasses water TP change of clothes shoes radio flashlight batteries.”

I decided I’d better get emergency supplies together, too. I gathered blankets, a flashlight, a radio, toilet paper and a jug with drinking water and put them in the closet under our basement steps.

To my storm question, Linda texted: “Not yet, but guess they are coming. M & K (son Michael and daughter-in-law Kristina) are spending the night with us - they don’t have a basement!”

Mom called at 8 and said she had made it down the stairs one step at a time, she’d watch the weather on the basement television and would spend the night in the bed down there if necessary.

Mariya and Lacey had gone to a party, but were keeping an eye on the weather too.

Art arrived around 11 and we watched WIBW until about midnight and then went to bed. But around 1 a.m., Katie knocked on our bedroom door. WIBW was warning people in Leonardville, Riley and Keats to take cover. The only other time I remember Keats being mentioned in a storm watch was in summer 1993. That time, a tornado plowed through just a mile west of our place, damaging homes, destroying a barn and various outbuildings and topping trees. Sister Gaila, her two girls, my two girls and I spent two nerve-wracking hours in the basement that time.

So I dressed quickly and Katie and I went down the steps, ready to go inside the closet if necessary. Art watched the weather from our bedroom window. I was upset with him, but he said that it was quiet outside and if anything was approaching, we’d either get a good wind or hear it.

We went back to bed at about 2, but I slept fitfully.

I called Mom in the morning. She was fine. She said she had stayed in her basement until 2 and then went back upstairs just as Katie and I had.

Then I texted others.

“Yes! Everyone’s OK!” Linda said. “Went to the basement twice last night when 2 diff. tornadoes were headed right toward Salina. But by the grace of God passed over! How bout you?”

Deb said, “It was way too close! I’ve never been so scared w/a warning before. Looks like more rural area got it except south Wichita had some damage.”

And Joyce said, “Yes, we are fine. Kids are fine...”

Aunt Edith, almost 92, spent two hours on the hard basement steps. “Next time, I’m going to take a cushion!” she said, laughing.

More than 100 tornadoes passed over Kansas and Oklahoma that night and while Kansas escaped with only property damage, several people were killed in Oklahoma. Still, in balance, it was no hurricane, tsunami, flood or earthquake.

And our Sunday? Well, the skies were not cloudy all day.

Sister Gaila holds Katie, front, and Gaila's younger daughter Larisa during our 1993 scare. It's pretty clear that Mariya, who is playing with something in her mouth, is not overly concerned as she's been through the drill many times. But Gaila's older daughter Gabriela, just visible behind Gaila, looks worried.

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