08 May TORNADO HISTORY
“TELL ME AND I FORGET. TEACH ME AND I REMEMBER. INVOLVE ME AND I LEARN.
Any meteorological student knows the stories of Cordell Kansas. Yet the average Kansan has never heard the stories. Cordell is located a few miles north and west of Hays, America. Old wives tales say that tornadoes never hit the same places twice. But on May 20 1916, 1917, & 1918 tornadoes hit the Cordell community. Read news accounts from the time and they will talk about the cyclones that plagued the citizens of Cordell. I tell the story of Cordell in my latest book TRUE TALES OF KANSAS. The story tells the accounts of many strange things that happened to those in the storms paths and the people killed and those who survived. Like the family sitting around their dining room table. All four walls of their home were carried away but the family were untouched sitting at the table. The story of the father that grabbed his infant son out of the air as he was sucked out of his mothers arms.
In the 1918 storm ten people were killed. People loaded in every motor car from Hays to do what they could to help. Joel Russell grew up in Cordell and moved away. Cordell and his wife settled back in Cordell and remembered the stories of the tornadoes. He realized that the Centennial of the events were coming up and started the movement to create a monument to those who lost their lives and homes. A call was made to the Dane Hanson Foundation for a grant. Soon two professors from Fort Hays State University designed a sculpture bearing the names of those who died on May 20th three years in a row. I have a photo of Cletus with the sculpture since Toto was not available.
Greensburg has become the most famous tornado in Kansas. It was another case of a week of tornadoes following the same general path. When I asked the US Dodge City radar technician that was on duty that night if there had been any study of the pattern of storms like what had happened that week, he said nobody had thought to study them. A friend of mine was on the Protection Fire Department and worked for Comanche Road & Bridges. In one weeks time he had become one of the most experienced tornado chasers in the state. Two days before the Greensburg tornado, Protection had evacuated all emergency equipment in town because a tornado was on a straight line with the town.
That Saturday night was a Ducks Unlimited event at Buster’s Saloon in Sun City, Kansas. I decided to go out early to help set up for the event and to enjoy the afternoon sitting on Buster’s porch. That day was one that every native born Kansas knows that something big was going to happen. I had my portable scanner with me. It turned out that I would end up being the weather watcher for that night. Now I had had experience trying to get out of Sun City during tornadic thunder storms just a few years before. In fact I had to sit up and watch the lines on the road and we were picked up a couple of times and moved to the other side of the road.
So I know that when we had a hundred people there that we needed enough time to get everyone out of there if the tornado came east. Sitting down in the hole that Sun City sits in all I could monitor was Barber County West tower and the National Weather Service. That afternoon was hot and humid and I watched the clouds building in the west. As the event was running the tornado came down over by Protection. The storm was moving east and it looked like it would keep coming. We had decided to shut the event down if the tornado got to Wilmore and showed no signs of turning north. The storm turned north towards Kiowa County and was drawing a bullseye on Greensburg. Over on the bar side of Buster’s they were watching the radar. There were four guys from Greensburg there for the event. One was on the phone with his mom in Greensburg until the connection was lost. The DU event had just ended when someone yelled that Greensburg was gone and the power went out. The first Fire/Rescue units sent from Barber County were from the Sun City station. We got everything packed up and everyone headed home.
The guy on the phone with his mother and his friends had to drive the back roads to Greensburg. His folks were trapped in their basement but survived. His house just north of town was hit. It happened that he had another house on another farm north and west of Greensburg. Two nights later that second house was blown away by another tornado closely following the general path of the first tornado.
I listened to my scanner all night. Up on the hill I could listen to most of the frequencies of the rescue efforts going on over in Greensburg. For months I could see the piles of burning debris hauled to the Kiowa County Landfill.
The second day after the Greensburg tornado another tornado passed just west and went north and east. That was when the Stafford County Sheriff Officer stopped to warn residents of a farm house of the tornado that was following him. At that residence it caught up to him and he died trying to help others. There were many lessons from that week of storms. It once again proved that there is no fiction stranger than the reality of a tornado.