- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

GREENSBURG, Kan. - A fresh wave of tornadoes ripped through southwest Kansas last night, a day after a tornado destroyed this town, killing nine and injuring dozens more.

The National Weather Service said it had received reports “well into the double digits” of twisters touching down in six counties.

Among them were a series of “wedge” tornadoes a half-mile wide similar to the one that devastated Greensburg late Friday night, meteorologist Mike Umscheid said.

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

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

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

Rescuers had spent the day hurrying through the wreckage from Friday night’s giant tornado, which left little standing beyond the local pub.

Friday’s weather was blamed for nine deaths in the region, a figure authorities feared could rise even before the latest twisters. The dead included eight in Kiowa County and one in nearby Pratt County, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department. She said officials are looking into reports of two other storm-related deaths.

City Administrator Steve Hewitt estimated 95 percent of the town of 1,400 was destroyed and predicted rescue efforts could take days as survivors could be trapped in basements and under rubble.

Among the only structures that survived was the Bar H Tavern, the town’s lone bar. It was briefly converted into a morgue.

Survivors picked over the remnants of their homes and possessions, still dazed by the twister’s strength and scope.

Jackie Robertson and her family collected wedding photos, a wallet and other belongings from the debris that had been her home.

Mrs. Robertson, her husband and a friend stayed in a cellar Friday night when the storms struck.

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

The town, previously best known as the home of the world’s largest hand-dug well 32 feet in diameter, 109 feet deep when it was finished in 1888 was a nightmare of splintered homes and smashed vehicles, the air redolent with the smell of sap from trees stripped of bark.

“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,” Mr. Hewitt said. “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.”

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

Even with that heads-up, Frank Gallant had no place to go. Mr. Gallant, who uses a wheelchair, had no basement, so he moved to the center of his house.

“You just hope you’ve lived up to the Lord’s expectations, and you’re going to the good place and not the bad,” said Mr. Gallant, 47.

Terry Gaul, a salesman on his way back from a business trip, pulled into a John Deere dealership with his partner to wait out what they thought was a hailstorm.

“The next thing we heard was this loud rumble,” said Mr. Gaul, his red polo shirt stained with blood and his face crosshatched with cuts. “There were these two John Deere combines sitting there, and the next thing I know, they started rocking. Then we started spinning like a windmill, and I said, ‘Oh, boy, it’s all over with now.’”

The tornado rolled Mr. Gaul’s van, throwing him into the back seat. When he came out, he noticed something missing.

“I never seen where those two combines went,” he said.

Weather Service meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of the damage was 1.4 miles wide, estimating it would be classified an “upper F-4 or an F-5” tornado, the strongest possible.

Jose Peraza said he was driving his oil rig into town when he heard the siren and driving hail started pounding the area. He pulled over and hid with several people in a convenience store freezer.

He said the storm ripped the side off the freezer, and when he came out he found the twister had thrown his truck weighed down by 40,000 pounds of oil “like nothing.”

State Rep. Dennis McKinney, the Kansas House minority leader, said he and his daughter hid in the basement while the storm destroyed his home. He helped search homes for survivors but noted “the inspections didn’t take that long because in the western part of town, there weren’t many homes left to inspect.”

A mandatory evacuation was ordered, he said. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County and planned to tour the area today, said her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran. The state sent 40 National Guard soldiers to help.

The White House said President Bush was briefed on the situation, and a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the agency was preparing to send aid.

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

Rescuers pulled about 30 people from the basement of a partially collapsed hospital early yesterday, most with minor injuries, Miss Watson said.

The twister was part of a storm front that spawned tornadoes along a line stretching northeast from Greensburg through central Kansas. At least eight tornadoes were reported late Friday and yesterday in Illinois, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Nebraska, though damage was minimal, officials said.

No injuries were reported in those states.

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