Early warning likely saved lives in Kansas | VailDaily.com

Early warning likely saved lives in Kansas

GREENSBURG, Kan. – The wail of tornado sirens in this part of Kansas is as much a part of spring as the ripening of the wheat fields. And people generally pay just as much attention.”Usually in this town, when the tornado whistles go off, that’s the time you get reacquainted with your neighbors,” photographer Scott Huckriede said Monday. “Everyone goes outside and starts looking at the sky.”But Friday night, it was a rarely issued “tornado emergency” instead of a regular warning, causing residents to scurry into basements and storm cellars.”It was too eerie of a feeling,” Huckriede said.People got roughly a 20-minute warning before the most powerful tornado to touch down in the United States in years nearly obliterated this town of 1,500.That’s likely why the death toll from the storm, which stood at 10 in this town on Monday, has been far lower than it might have been, authorities said.The tornado emergency is 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.Emergency officials speculated there were a lot of people in their homes that night watching television, where they could see reports on the storm. That potentially saved hundreds of lives, said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Guard and the Kansas Department of Emergency Management.The 1.7-mile-wide Category F-5 enhanced tornado destroyed about 95 percent of the town Friday night. It also left 13 people hospitalized, four in critical condition. Two others were killed from the storm system in other parts of Kansas.Kiowa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tracy Chance was on his way back from turkey hunting when a deputy from an adjoining county told him a tornado was about to smash into Greensburg.Chance was able to make it to shelter in a friend’s basement with four minutes to spare.”Four minutes,” Chance said. “If I had still been out on the streets, I probably would have been one of the unfortunate ones.”The names of five of the dead were released Monday. They were Claude Hopkins, 79; Larry Hoskins, 51; David Lyon, 48; Colleen Panzer, 77; and Ron Rediger, 57. All of them were from Greensburg. The names of the others were still being withheld, pending notification of relatives.Two bodies were found Monday – one in the debris and another in the Kiowa County State Fishing Lake. Cadaver dogs worked alongside residents, who were allowed back in Monday to scour the rubble for whatever belongings could be salvaged.”I probably could have salvaged more if I could have gotten back earlier, but I understand how it is,” said insurance agent Scott Spark, who was hauling papers out of what remained of his office.Those who fled in the darkness got their first daylight view of the damage Monday.”It’s eerie,” said Justin Huckriede, the photographer’s nephew, a Greensburg native who now lives in Wichita. “The place I grew up in – it’s just gone.”The city remained under curfew from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured the town by bus on Monday afternoon and said he was stunned by the damage.”It is horrendous, some of the worst I’ve seen,” Paulison said. “Total destruction.”But there were moments of encouragement, too. One of the town’s most prized possessions – a 1,000-pound pallasite meteorite found near Greensburg – was found early Monday morning near the museum where it had been displayed.”Unless you know what you’re looking for, it looks like part of the rubble,” said Don Stimpson, a volunteer who found the space rock.President Bush arrives in Greensburg Wednesday to tour the damage. Meanwhile, the search goes on for survivors and victims.”We’ve got to stress that the search and rescue operation continues,” said Trooper Ronald Knoefel, a spokesman for the Kansas Highway Patrol. “We still have optimism that we’re going to find even more people alive.”

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