- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

GREENSBURG, Kan. (AP) — The death toll from a tornado that nearly obliterated this farming town climbed to 10 yesterday, but residents said it could have been far worse if not for a 20-minute warning that gave them time to take shelter in storm cellars and basements.

“We had plenty of warning,” said Gary Goodheart, whose house was gutted with only a few walls left standing. “If people paid attention to sirens, they should have been able to get to a safe place.”

Cadaver dogs worked alongside residents, who were allowed back in to scour the rubble for whatever belongings could be salvaged. Two bodies were found yesterday — one in the debris and another in the Kiowa County State Fishing Lake. A survivor was found late Sunday night.

The 1.5-mile-wide Category F-5 enhanced tornado, the most powerful to hit the U.S. in eight years, destroyed about 95 percent of the town Friday night. It also left 13 persons hospitalized, four in critical condition. Two others were killed from the storm system in other parts of Kansas.

In this tornado-prone region, residents knew what to do when they heard the rarely issued “tornado emergency” alert and scurried into basements and storm cellars. When it passed, they pushed out through debris, their walls and roofs blown away.

“My house doesn’t have a basement, so I went to my mother’s and got in her basement,” resident Scott Huckriede said. “But most of the houses in town do have basements, and the ones that don’t have the courthouse or the school to go to. I think pretty much everybody went.”

A step above the typical tornado warning, which simply means a twister has been spotted or is likely to develop, a tornado emergency is used when an extremely dangerous storm is headed directly for a populated area, meteorologist Jennifer Ritterling said.

One was last issued in 1999 when an F-5 tornado struck the Oklahoma City area, killing 36 persons. Miss Ritterling said the typical lead time for a tornado is 10 to 18 minutes, but the storm’s extreme size made it simpler to spot and predict its movements.

“The strong and violent ones are easier to detect than the smaller tornadoes,” she said. “We try not to cry wolf and send out false alarms for things that aren’t rotating. You have to put that extra wording in when it appears people are in danger.”

Mike Umscheid, a meteorologist at Dodge City, issued the lifesaving warning Friday night. In his online blog, Mr. Umscheid said he initially thought the storm would miss Greensburg to the southeast. But then, he said, the storm began turning more to the north with each pass of the radar.

The government’s response to the disaster was undermined by ongoing National Guard deployments to the Middle East, said Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat.

“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Mrs. Sebelius said she would address the issue with President Bush when he arrives in Greensburg tomorrow to tour the damage.

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