Published May 05, 2007
GREENSBURG, Kan. – Emergency crews called off the search for more victims of a tornado that killed at least nine people and devastated this southwest Kansas town as fresh rounds of severe weather threatened the area.
The National Weather Service said it had numerous reports of tornadoes making brief touchdowns Saturday in nearby counties as a slow-moving storm system moved through, although only minor damage was reported. A meteorologist in Greensburg said a funnel cloud passed just east of town shortly before 7 p.m.
"It looks like it's going to be another long night," meteorologist Mike Umscheid said.
Rescuers had spent the day hurrying through the wreckage from Friday's giant tornado, which left little standing beyond the local pub.
Forecasters issued a fresh tornado warning Saturday evening in the region, where Friday's weather was blamed for nine deaths, a figure authorities feared could rise.
City Administrator Steve Hewitt estimated 95 percent of the town of 1,500 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 only bar. It was briefly converted into a morgue.
Survivors of the storm picked over the remnants of their homes and possessions, still dazed by the twister's strength and scope. The town 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," Hewitt said during a news conference. "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" in the central U.S. — about 20 minutes before the storm hit.
State Rep. Dennis McKinney, the House minority leader and a Greensburg resident, said he hid in his basement with his daughter as the storm destroyed his house.
"It was very loud, but not as loud as I thought it would be," McKinney said. "It was over in a minute or two, the devastation was so fast."
He said he spent the evening and early morning conferring with emergency officials and helping search homes for survivors, although he noted "the inspections didn't take that long because in the western part of town, there weren't many homes left to inspect."
"We had ample warning and that's why, with such huge devastation, that we're fortunate that we didn't have more fatalities than we had," McKinney said.
Meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of damage was 1.4 miles wide and estimated that the tornado eventually will be classified an "upper F-4 or an F-5" tornado, the strongest possible. "I'm in downtown Greensburg. There's really nothing left," Ruthi said.
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 other 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."
The dead included eight in Kiowa County, where Greensburg is located, 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.
"We continue to find folks and this will go on for a good couple days — the rescue itself," Hewitt said. "I mean, the debris is just unbelievable. Even if you are in a basement, I mean your home is collapsed, and we've got to find a way to get to you."
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County and planned to tour the area Sunday, said her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran. The state sent 40 National Guard soldiers to help.
The White House said President George W. Bush was briefed on the situation. Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Dawn Kinsey said FEMA was preparing to help once Kansas officials request assistance.
Rescuers pulled about 30 people from the basement of a partially collapsed hospital early Saturday, but most of them had minor injuries, Watson said.
Scores of injured people were sent to hospitals as far away as Wichita, 110 miles away.
The storm front spawned tornadoes along a line stretching northeast from Greensburg through central Kansas. Three small tornadoes touched down in rural southwestern Illinois, but no damage was reported. Two more struck in Oklahoma and another in South Dakota, damaging some structures, officials said.
Yet another tornado struck Saturday in central Nebraska, damaging outbuildings and power lines, officials said.
No injuries were reported in any of those states.