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Emerging to devastation

Families take shelter as tornado travels west of GB

POSTED May 17, 2017 9:13 p.m.
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 Editor’s note: The author lives west of Great Bend and witnessed the tornado as it traveled from rural Pawnee Rock towards rural Great Bend.  This story was updated on Thursday, May 18 with additional photos.


Tuesday night, as tornado sirens at Great Bend Municipal Airport sounded, alerting residents west of the city of imminent danger, families headed inside, and learned they were under tornado warning until 8:30 p.m. They began moving vehicles into garages or sheds as they were able. Looking to the west, they saw dark clouds building as the skies took on a greenish-yellow hue. Some hail began to fall, but then there was a moment of quiet, with no hail, no rain, and no wind. Moments later, everything changed as a tornado wrapped in rain made its way northeast from the direction of Pawnee Rock. In those moments, lives were changed.
At least three homes on West Barton County Road between West 70 Avenue and West 80 Avenue were directly hit by the tornado. Seconds later homes a mile away were leveled as it continued on its way toward Hoisington. After it passed, emergency vehicles raced west on West Barton County Road and the vicinity, checking on victims. Only a few minor injuries were sustained. With several power lines down, roadblocks were then set in place at NW 60 Avenue and Barton County Road to stop onlookers from entering the area. Over the next few hours, emergency responders checked on homes in the area, and victims were evacuated to safety.

Lifelong residents lose all
As the sun rose on the destruction wrought at their home of over 50 years, Dan and Joyce Wapelhorst were joined by a few family members who had arrived to help with the long process of picking up the pieces of a once orderly life.
“You work all your life, and then in seconds, it’s gone,” Dan said. “We’re too damned old to start over; that’s the bad part of it.”
A grandson came up to the couple then, carrying a shotgun salvaged from the debris. Dan was pleased to have it back, and wished one belonging to his dad could be found too. That, he said, would make him happy. Faced with the extensive damage, he and Joyce were uncertain where to begin. Should they wait for an insurance adjuster, or should they dig in and start looking for keepsakes like photo albums?
The couple learned Tuesday night they were under a tornado warning, and saw on television that activity was happening at Pawnee Rock. As twilight descended, Dan said he stood at his back door, watching, and at first it didn’t seem like it was going to do anything.
“I thought, ‘go out behind the garage and take a look,’ and there I saw it, right out here in this field,” he said. He ran back to the house where Joyce and daughter Karen were watching from the back door, and told them to get in the cellar. By the time they were in, he said he could barely pull the door down.
“It just pulled me. Our heads just popped; the pressure was outrageous,” he said. Seconds later, it had passed.
“I stuck my head up, and said our house is gone.”
Joyce said her stomach sank, and neither was able to sleep that night, consumed with the thoughts of all they had worked so hard for. Missing is the couple’s cat.
“If I’d had time, I would have grabbed him. He was sitting at the back door. I just didn’t have time,” Dan said.
The couple was evacuated to a Days Inn where they spent the night.
The tornado was strong, its path wide enough to level the Wapelhorst house, and Cody and Kim Roach, their neighbors to the north, lost their home also. Their garage, however, was left intact. A row of 25-foot high cedar trees that lined the Wapelhorst driveway to the south were stripped and twisted, and a portion of the Roaches’ windbreak to the north was similarly destroyed, with downed power lines twisted among the branches left hanging in odd ways.
Fifty years earlier, Dan said, he and his brother and father built the cellar where they found refuge.
“Me and my brother dug the hole, and my dad ran the concrete. We’ve been down there 50 times, and never nothing. Just false alarms. But this time, I took too much time.”
The Roaches also made it to their cellar in time, Wapelhorst said.
Other nearby neighbors, Mark and Melanie Calcara, emerged from their basement to find many of their decades-old trees uprooted, though their house sustained only minor damage.
“At first, I saw the trees, and thought we’d been hit,” Mark Calcara said. “Then I looked across the street, and I told Melanie I could not see the (Wapelhorst and Roach) houses.”
Wednesday morning, Barton County Sheriff’s deputies were at the scene as family and friends of the tornado victims arrived to help and offer support, and utilities workers unraveled the damage.
Chain saws were active at the Calcara property, cutting limbs into manageable lengths to feed into a wood chipper. Power lines and a toppled power pole blocked West 70 Avenue at their corner.

Garden now a memory
Many in Great Bend will know the Wapelhorsts as regular sellers at the Great Bend Summer Street Stroll Farmers Market. They’ve been bringing fresh fruit and vegetables from their expansive home garden since the market began four years ago. Last June, they were featured in a Great Bend Tribune article that showcased Dan’s vegetable garden and Joyce’s flower gardens and fountain that, over decades, the couple had built and tended, creating an oasis where they spent lazy summer afternoons together.
Tuesday afternoon, the couple had worked diligently weeding and staking their 100 tomato plants, with anticipation of a fine crop this summer. But in moments, Mother Nature took it all away.
“We were counting on going to Farmers Market,” he said. “I guess we’re done. We worked all day yesterday afternoon.
They had cages around each plant, and had covered each with the covers they’d made for them to protect them from the hail that had been predicted earlier.
“We saved them several times in years past like that. It didn’t do no good. We worked there all day, and now ...” he choked up. Joyce took his hand, and the two rejoined family members to search for a way to make sense of what was left.
   

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