The first thing was the length and width of these storms. The path was more than 90 miles long and in some places nearly 23 miles wide. On the map it appeared to be about 3 inches long, but in reality this pattern of destruction continued mile after mile during my two-day trip. Most tornadoes only track for a mile or two.
As many as 130 funnel clouds may have been spawned out of this weather system. The destruction began just northeast of Claflin. There were twisted tree rows torn and scattered like kindling.
While I’d often seen pivot irrigation systems rolled over on their sides, this storm crunched them together like accordions or strung them out in “S” shaped trails throughout the countryside. Boards, branches, bits of steel bins and other debris littered the fields and became a familiar sight.
At the same time I noticed all of the water. Water in the ditches. Water in the fields. Water flowing out of farm ponds. Water everywhere and in many places as far as you could see in every direction.
And with the water came mosquitoes. Walking through a field where volunteers had come to clean the debris was like walking through a swamp. Even with repellant, swarms of mosquitoes still swarmed around your arms, legs and face. With every step, your feet sloshed in the damp, water-saturated ground, and in places, standing water.
In addition to the water, smoke snaked its way toward the sky. This came from “burn piles” as farmers called them. Nearly every farm had one burning somewhere on the property. Any and everything destroyed in the storms was hauled to such piles and burned.
Many homes dotting the countryside were destroyed, gone or in some state of disrepair. By the time I traveled through, men on ladders beat out a steady refrain as they hammered roofs and windows back in place.
Country roads, usually less traveled, buzzed with activity as power employees worked feverishly to restore electricity. Trenchers, windmill repairmen, semi-trailers transporting irrigation systems, clean-up crews—you name it, they darted and dashed on the roads like ants on a sand pile.
Throughout the cleanup efforts, one thing appeared to be in short supply and that was time. There simply wasn’t enough.
Coordination was another commodity in high demand. While there appeared to be plenty of volunteers, heading them in the right direction or deciding what project to tackle next was about as tricky as herding cats.
Regardless of what people were engaged in doing, the word tornado wound up linked to such activities. When people became weary and could not think clearly, some called this “tornado brain.” One farm wife carried all of her papers and plans in a tornado bag. In one small town in Stafford County, work breaks were called tornado teas.
Volunteers from all over the country, willing and eager to help, handled relief efforts. Sylvia Allen had traveled from her home in Wisconsin to help. Allen said the people impacted by the storms amazed her.
“I had to convince some people to take the supplies,” she said. “Many of these survivors asked me to give them to someone else. They told me they were OK and there were others who were worse off than them.”
Five Missouri college students spent three days helping gather debris out of wheat fields in Barton County.
“We wanted to help the farmers and people of these Kansas communities get back on their feet,” said Tyler Folan, St. Louis. “Lots of tornadoes impact the Midwest and we can’t get over how genuine you people are. It’s great to be able to help.”
During this trip I also heard the story of the farmer and the owl. Seems a farmer rescued this 2-pound bird wrapped up in a barbed-wire fence. Although the bird was bruised and battered by the 200 mph winds, the farmer nursed it back to health.
Like this owl, many other success stories took flight after the May 4 storm. Kiowa County farmer Ki Gamble may have said it best when he talked about a special event slated for May 4, 2008, on his renovated farm.
“We plan to have a tornado party,” he says. “It will be a celebration of our lives, families and all those people who helped us during this difficult time.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.