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Natural-Disaster Exhibit Opens at Kansas Museum

After a year in which Kansas endured destructive ice storms, killer tornadoes and severe flooding, it seemed the state history museum carefully timed the opening of an exhibit on extreme weather.

But organizers say the timing is a coincidence, because they have been working on the "Forces of Nature" exhibit for more than a year.

"Weather is a huge part of our identity," said Rebecca Martin, project manager for the exhibit, which opened Friday at the Kansas Museum of History. "People around the world will forever associate us with a really famous tornado in 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

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The Kansas State Historical Society is using the exhibit to collect Kansans' recollections of memorable storms. The society set up a small booth with a microphone and computer, so that visitors can tell and record their stories.

"We often think — let's admit it — that other residents of other states are really wimps, right? That we really know how to survive weather here," said Jennie Chinn, the society's executive director. "We all have our family folklore that revolves around weather."

The exhibit displays photos of power lines and utility poles sagging under the weight of ice from the winter of 2006-07 next to a photo from an 1886 blizzard.

Photos from a night of tornadoes in May 2007 that leveled most of Greensburg in southwest Kansas and killed at least 13 people hang next to images from a twister that left 16 dead in Topeka in 1966. Debris from both also are on display.

The museum built a mock storm shelter just inside the doors to the exhibit, with film footage from a 2004 tornado in south-central Kansas playing just beyond it.

For Rosette Randel, the exhibit stirred up memories of watching a tornado as a college student and having a twister roar by her house in the 1990s. She recalled that the tornado lifted her home off the basement just enough that she could see a bit of light.

"We grabbed the dogs and went to the basement," she said. "We really didn't have a storm shelter. We were in the corner of the basement."

The exhibit also highlights major floods along the Kansas River in 1903 and 1951, as well as severe dust storms in the 1930s. One display addresses prairie fires.

Martin said work on the exhibit began early in 2007. Researchers examined a variety of historical sources to cull Kansans' recollections of extreme weather.

"There are tons of diaries and reminiscences, letters, about living through prairie fires and trying to fight them," she said. "There are so many resources."

But the exhibit's opening — and a preview Thursday evening — came with sunny skies and mild temperatures.

"I think it's ironic that we're opening an exhibit on extreme weather on a day that's so picture-perfect," Chinn said.

The exhibit will run through Jan. 4, 2009.