Editor’s note: Six months after a narrow but powerful tornado cut through parts of southwestern Barton County, the path of destruction is still visible. While for the most part the debris has been hauled away, mangled trees mark the path. Homeowners that lost everything but their lives are in various stages of rebuilding. Three of those families who lived just west of Great Bend shared how they are managing to get their lives back on track. Something, they said, they couldn’t have done without the outpouring of support they received from the community. This is part one of a three-part series.
On May 16, Kathy Wapelhorst moved back home with her parents, Dan and Joyce Wapelhorst. She and her boyfriend had parted ways, and she needed to figure things out.
On May 17 she was helping her parents in their garden and enjoying a beautiful spring day. As day turned to evening, tornado watches turned to warnings and a sighting was made south and west of Great Bend. She and her parents knew the drill. They had been down to the cellar countless times, emerging to find at the most some branches down, but for the most part nothing out of place.
“Dad wasn’t ready to go to the cellar,” she recalled. “He always procrastinated, but I was getting nervous. I finally convinced him we needed to get mom down there. He took one more look, and came running, telling us we had to go now because the tornado was in the field.”
They were able to make it into the shelter in the nick of time, just as the house exploded above them with the force of the twister.
Tuesday, her boyfriend called her, urging her to come home and that they could work anything out. Today, they are doing fine. Kathy is convinced she was where God wanted her to be on May 17. She was there to help save her parents’ lives.
But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, for Kathy, it was just the beginning. For the next few weeks, her faith in humanity was bolstered as caring people known and unknown descended on the rural property.
“I remember looking down the road and for half a mile seeing cars and trucks and equipment, and people donating their time and equipment,” she said. “The way the people came and helped, it was amazing.”
Friends, family, and more fill the void
The following week, residents of the Dream Center arrived. Two van loads of clients worked for several days, cleaning and picking up the small stuff that would have taken the Wapelhorsts so long to clean up.
Finally, on the tenth day, another family member they’d feared lost reappeared. As Dan ran into the house, he’d seen their cat by the door, but there was no time to grab him on the way to the cellar. Surely, he’d been picked up and carried some distance. Since his return, they’ve been calling him Tornado, Kathy said.
The outpouring of help from family, friends and local volunteers touched the Waplehorsts deeply. Organizations like the Red Cross and the Barton County Health Department helped the volunteers too, providing water and food as well as tetanus shots for everyone.
Two family members went above and beyond what Dan and Joyce could have imagined. Brother-in-law Allen Karst came to help three to four days a week for three months following the event.
“I wouldn’t even tell him what to do,” Dan said. “He was raking and cleaning up stuff, hauling dirt, fixed up my lawn mowers, you wouldn’t believe it. We’d even be gone, and we’d come home, and here he was out doing something, you know.”
Brother-in-law Bob Evans, Newton, mentioned the Wapelhorsts’ situation at church, which led to the donation of a lovely bedroom set which one woman provided in her effort to downsize. Made of cherry, it was a welcome gift to the couple who were left without a stick of furniture. But that’s not all Evans did to help.
“He came out and helped me with all the electrical in the garage, and brought me all kinds of stuff — peg boards, and tools, just gave them to me,” Dan said. “I don’t know how I’ll ever repay those guys.”
His son-in law is a contractor, and he put in the foundation and sidewalk around their new modular home. The new house is nice, but nothing like the home that they lost.
A lifetime on the land
Their neighbors to the north decided not to rebuild. Not so Dan.
“This is where I was raised, and I just couldn’t leave it. I was raised in that big old house, and after my dad died my mom wanted to know if I would like to have it.”
They worked it out. He paid for a brand new mobile home for his mom to stay in until she passed away. When he took possession of the house, it was in pretty bad shape, he said.
“In 35 years, we went through every room,” Dan said. They tore out plaster, added insulation, put up new sheetrock, new floors and windows. “I just about had it the way I wanted it. In 10 seconds, everything was gone.”
And not only the house. He’d built a new garage when he retired, plus there was the greenhouse, his barn, and a number of other smaller buildings, all were taken.
The first week following the tornado, Dan said he was pretty numb.
“I just sat there in the chair. I didn’t care — people were asking if I wanted this or that, I just told them to throw it away, I didn’t want nothing,” he said. But after a few weeks, he pulled out of it. “It’s just hard to take. I began to say,”Yeah, we’re going to build right back here again.” Nothing like we had, but we’re still here. I still make my garden.”
About the time Dan was pulling out of his funk, his tomatoes that had been stripped to mere sticks began putting on new leaves. He’d started with 115 plants, all planted with t-posts and cages. All but eight had been ripped out. He moved them to the front of the garden, and his daughter bought him another flat of them. They were in business again. Soon, they were selling 70-80 pounds a week, he said.
“We did good. Everyone came out here for them,” he said.
“What I miss most is my trees,” Dan said. He removed 35 elm trees when he moved back to the family home. In their place, he planted numerous hardwoods and cedar trees. Only one of the cedars remains.
One of the oak trees near her pond, Joyce said, is what they call their miracle tree.
“On the day of the tornado, it was twisted, its branches lying on the ground. Next day, we came back out here, and it was standing back up,” she said. “We took it as a sign to stay.”
Picking up an old dream
As her parents worked diligently to rebuild their lives, Kathy realized it was time for her to stop denying a dream she’d had since she was a young girl. She’d always wanted to be a nurse, but had felt the dream was out of reach after she started her family at a young age. After this experience, she realized she needed to listen and trust God. Her parents helped her to realize that it’s never too late to do what you really want to do. She enrolled in nursing school in October, and this month is starting a new job at the Dominican Sisters of Peace convent.
Looking back, she said, she can now see a bigger picture that wasn’t apparent as they emerged from the storm cellar. She is so thankful to all the people who helped her and her parents through their darkest hours. Their generosity made it possible for them to heal and move forward, believing and trusting in God.
As Thanksgiving approached, Joyce was looking forward to the family coming to visit them at their new house. With 27 grandchildren, she wasn’t sure how they would all fit, but they would work it out, she said. Her daughters are working on replacing the albums that were lost. Rebuilding isn’t easy, both Dan and Joyce will be the first to say, and while it will never be the same, spring is just around the corner, and there are more trees to plant.