Tornado kills 1 in Kan., damages hundreds of homes

A tornado swept through a small eastern Kansas town, killing one person and destroying at least 20 homes, as severe thunderstorms pelted the region with hail that some residents described as the size of baseballs, authorities said Sunday.

Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson identified the victim as Don Chesmore, 53, of Reading. He was in a mobile home that flipped over Saturday night. He was taken to a hospital in Emporia, where he was pronounced dead.

Five others were injured but none of those injuries were considered life-threatening, Watson said. She did not have details on their injuries or know whether they all were hospitalized.

About 200 homes were damaged in and around the town of about 250 people, Watson said. The local post office and volunteer fire department were damaged, and all roads in and out of the town have been closed off. Reading is about 50 miles south of Topeka. The tornado was reported about 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Watson said.

It was classified Sunday as an EF3, with winds ranging up to 165 mph, said National Weather Service meteorologist George Phillips.

Fields around the town of Reading were littered with sections of aluminum, insulation and papers. A tractor stood alone in a field, the building that surrounded it demolished. A large board pierced the wall of a home that was missing its roof and windows. A pile of stones was all that was left of another building.

Outside, some people were starting to clean up the debris, utility crews were fixing downed lines and law enforcement officers were taking pictures to document the damage. One family sat on their front porch looking at what the storm had done. Next door, their neighbor's mature cedar tree had been toppled.

The sheriff was telling residents to leave the community at 6 p.m. Sunday because most of the town lacked power. They will be allowed to return at 9 a.m. Monday, Watson said.

Rev. Lyle Williams, who lives in Emporia and is a pastor for about 10 worshippers at the Reading First Baptist Church, said the church suffered extensive damage.

"I'm not going to be able to have church today, that's for sure," Williams told The Associated Press. He's been a pastor there for 21 years.

Residents and their family and friends posted pleas for information on a Facebook page. Many landline phones in the town rang unanswered Sunday, and the storm had disrupted cellphone coverage.

Some power had been restored, but most of the town remained without it. A shelter was set up at a local school and senior citizen's center in Emporia, and the Salvation Army was serving meals, snacks and drinks from a mobile feeding kitchen.

While many states have been struck by severe storms this spring, Kansas has been having one of its lightest tornado seasons in decades, according to the National Weather Service. Until Saturday, no tornadoes had been reported in May, a month that averages nearly 30. Last May, 127 tornadoes tore through the state.

For the year so far, the state had seen only eight tornadoes, compared to the January-to-May average of about 44.

The tornado season picked up late Saturday, however. Powerful storms rolled across the northeast part of the state, spawning funnel clouds and hail that ripped limbs off trees and shattered windows. In Topeka, residents reported hail the size of golf balls and, in some cases, baseballs.

The tornados that hit the state Saturday are still being tallied. Phillips of the National Weather Service estimates that about six touched down.

Along with the tornado that hit Reading, the weather service confirmed that one touched down in Topeka and northeast of the city near Lake Perry, where damage was reported at a nearby campsite, Watson said. An elderly couple was trapped inside a mobile home until emergency responders could clear the debris. The couple was not hurt.

Another confirmed twister struck near Quenemo in Osage County, causing minor damage to several homes but no injuries.

Gov. Sam Brownback declared an emergency for 16 counties, including the one surrounding Reading, Watson said. The declaration allows state resources to be used in recovery and cleanup and paves the way for federal assistance if needed. Watson said a state team had been sent to Reading to help local officials with recovery work.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim and everyone impacted by this storm," Brownback said in a news release.


Associated Press writers Erin Gartner in Chicago and Bill Cormier in Atlanta contributed to this report.