Rescuers search for survivors after Kansas tornado
By Roxana Hegeman
The Associated Press
GREENSBURG, Kan. — Before a nearly mile-and-a-half-wide tornado obliterated this town, leaving little standing besides the local pub and a grain elevator, truck driver Jose Peraza heard the warning sirens.
He pulled his oil rig over in the driving hail Friday night and found what looked like a sturdy, safe place: the freezer at a convenience store. He and several other people hid inside as the twister destroyed houses and cars, ripped the tops of school and church buildings and severely damaged a hospital.
The storm tore off one side of the freezer, but Peraza made it out safely. When he went to look for his truck, loaded with 40,000 pounds of oil, he found that the tornado had tossed it aside "like nothing."
At least nine people were killed in the storm, all but one in or near Greensburg, a southwestern Kansas town of about 1,500 known as the home of the world's largest hand-dug well.
Dozens were hurt, and rescuers rushed from building to building Saturday in hopes of ensuring the toll would not rise. But a new wave of tornadoes that night stopped those efforts.
The National Weather Service said it had received reports "well into the double digits" of twisters touching down in six counties in the area, among them a series of half-mile-wide "wedge" tornadoes similar to those that devastated Greensburg.
"We're going to expect quite a lot of damage," meteorologist Mike Umscheid said.
More tornadoes were reported from South Dakota south into Oklahoma, where a high school and homes were damaged in Sweetwater.
In Greensburg, an estimated 95 percent of the 121-year-old town's buildings were shattered into splinters, broken glass and bent metal, the air redolent with the smell of sap from trees stripped of bark.
One spared building, the Bar H Tavern, was briefly used as a makeshift morgue Saturday morning.
"All my downtown is gone," City Administrator Steve Hewitt said. "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."
Hewitt predicted rescue efforts could take "a good couple days" as survivors could be trapped in basements and under rubble.
"I mean, the debris is just unbelievable," he said. "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."
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 collected wedding photos, a wallet and other belongings from the debris that had been her home.
Robertson, her husband and a friend stayed in a cellar Friday night when the storms struck.
"My heart just aches for everyone," she said. "It is so surreal. This is where I live."
National Weather Service meteorologist Larry Ruthi said the path of damage was 1.4 miles wide and estimated that the tornado 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," he said.
Residents said they heard the tornado warning sirens, a common feature of towns in "Tornado Alley," about 20 minutes before Friday's storm hit.
Even with the warning, Frank Gallant had no place to go. He uses a wheelchair and has no basement, so all he could do was move to the center of his house and hope for the best.
"You just hope you've lived up to the Lord's expectations, and you're going to the good place and not the bad," said Gallant, sitting with his miniature pinscher Saturday at an emergency shelter in nearby Haviland.
When he emerged, he said, "My house was in the middle of the street."
State Rep. Dennis McKinney waited out the storm in the basement with his daughter, then helped search homes for survivors. But he noted that "the inspections didn't take that long because in the western part of town, there weren't many homes left to inspect."
A mandatory evacuation was ordered, he said. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius declared a disaster emergency for Kiowa County, said her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran. The state sent 40 National Guard soldiers to help.
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.
The extent of damage from tornadoes spotted Saturday night in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota was not immediately clear.
A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said there were some injuries in Sweetwater area, where several tornadoes were reported, but that more details were unavailable because communications had been knocked out. Several thousand electricity customers were without power in South Dakota.
The White House said President Bush was briefed on the situation in Greensburg. Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Dawn Kinsey said FEMA was preparing to help once Kansas officials request assistance. "We've been in contact with them since the beginning," Kinsey said.
Scores of injured people were sent to hospitals as far away as Wichita, 110 miles away. More than 70 went to Pratt Regional Medical Center about 30 minutes away, with all but 14 treated and released, said hospital spokeswoman Kim Stivers.
Rescuers pulled about 30 people from the basement of a partially collapsed hospital early Saturday, but most of them had minor injuries, Watson said.
Greensburg's famous well, 32 feet in diameter, 109 feet deep when it was finished in 1888, was damaged but intact, Hewitt said.
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