Tornado destroys town, killing 8

Twisters scour southwest Kansas, virtually erasing one farm town. Officials say the death toll may grow.

Published May 6, 2007

GREENSBURG, Kan. - Emergency crews called off the search for more victims of a tornado that killed eight people and devastated this southwest Kansas town Friday as fresh rounds of severe weather threatened the area Saturday evening.

The National Weather Service said it had numerous reports of tornadoes making brief touchdowns in nearby counties as a slow-moving storm system moved through, although only minor damage was reported.

Friday's weather was blamed for nine deaths in the region, 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.

Jackie Robertson and her family spent Saturday afternoon collecting wedding photos, a wallet and other belongings from the debris that had been her home.

Robertson, her husband and a friend spent Friday night in a cellar when the storms struck the area.

"My heart just aches for everyone, " she said. "It is so surreal. This is where I live."

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" - about 20 minutes before the storm hit.

National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of damage was 1.4-miles wide, estimating it would be classified an "upper F-4 or an F-5" tornado, the strongest possible.

Jose Peraza said he was driving his oil rig into town when he heard the siren. Driving hail started pounding the area, he said, and 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.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County, said her spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Dawn Kinsey said FEMA was preparing to help once Kansas officials request assistance.

Greensburg, Kan.

Population: About 1, 500.

Founded: 1886.

Median income: About $28, 500.

Known for: Home of the world's largest hand-dug well - 32 feet in diameter, 109 feet deep when it was finished in 1888.