Note: This is the second of a two-part series commemorating the April 21, 2001, tornado that devastated Hoisington. Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the storm that took one life that night and eventually two others weeks later.
HOISINGTON — Hellen Keller once observed that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. Twenty years ago after a tornado destroyed a large portion of Hoisington, residents of the town of 2,500 will gather Wednesday evening not only to remember how quickly life changed that dark and stormy night but how the community has managed to overcome the trauma of lost homes, businesses, neighborhoods and the wreckage of physical and mental wounds. One individual died in the twister while two others succumbed to injuries several weeks later, accounting for more grieving and heartbreak.
Hosted by the Hoisington Historical Society, a community-wide commemoration event will take place at American Legion Post 286, 204 N. Main St. Wednesday from 5:30-7:30. The come-and-go event will feature displays of newspaper articles, tornado books, photos and scrapbooks. The event is free of charge and open to the public.
The laws of home, friendship and community
Local attorney Donald Reif was returning from Topeka when the storm struck. Reif is the fourth generation of his family to live in Hoisington. His home was among more than 180 houses destroyed by the twister.
When asked how the event changed his outlook on life, Reif said, “That’s hard to gauge. It certainly puts life in perspective in that what is easy to take for granted, such as your life and your home, can be gone in a matter of a minute or two. It took me a while to consider my new home permanent because the one I had I sure thought was there for me forever but it certainly wasn’t.”
Gerald Tauscher, who died in the storm, was remembered fondly by Reif.
“I knew Gerald very well,” he said. “He lived across the street from me. My dad and Gerald were friends and my mom knew Gerald’s wife well, too.”
Reif attended grade school and high school in Hoisington with Gerald’s daughter and the two remain friends to this day. Gerald owned and operated an auto body shop in Hoisington for years and was retired at the time of his death. “He was a very good auto body repairman,” said Reif. “I remember having a couple fender benders as a kid growing up and dad took the vehicles to Gerald for repair and he always did an excellent job. He was a good neighbor to me as well.”
In the storm’s aftermath, Reif said the response was immediate both within and outside the community.
“The thing that stood out to me the most was the number of people from all over the state and even the country that came to town to volunteer with cleanup or any other needs we had,” said Reif. “I’ll never forget the night of the tornado, a fellow lawyer and his wife came to Hoisington to look for me to see if I was OK.”
He noted that area ministries were a big part of the response and recovery effort. “Ron Svaty, who later became Judge Svaty, came with his church group from Ellsworth to clean up debris from where my house stood,” Reif said. “They found my high school graduation ring. I’ll never forget the generosity and concern that people had and I found out just how good of friends that I had and still have.”
A life-saving hunting trip
Adam Kephart, who was a student at Barton Community College in 2001, was debating whether to join his friends on a hunting trip during the late afternoon of April 21.
“We were coming back from Kansas City after hearing about the tornado,” Adam’s mother, Lana, said. “Since almost all the communication was knocked out in town, we were not a hundred percent certain Adam was not in the house when the tornado came.” She said her son was planning the camping trip a few days in advance but “being a college kid, I knew there was always the possibility his plans might have changed.”
Although her house was wiped out in the storm, Lana found out that Adam decided to take the hunting trip with his comrades and was not at home that night. “He went somewhere several miles northeast of Hoisington and actually didn’t find out about the tornado until the next day,” she said. “It was devastating to lose our home but that paled when we found out that Adam was safe and out of danger.”
The brunt of the damage caused by the twister was along K-4 and the surrounding area. Several businesses line the thoroughfare that connects the west and east side of town. Lana’s home was the first house just east of the Dairy Queen.
“It was a four-hour drive from Kansas City and everyone was just so worked up not knowing the conditions of things like loss of life, damage to buildings or if we would even have a home to return to,” she said. “Earlier, while my husband and I were in Kansas City, we saw a short news clip about a small Kansas town being hit by a possible F4 tornado.”
Some of the footage included the Dairy Queen, which had been decimated. “That really scared us because we were pretty much next door and knew if the Dairy Queen was destroyed, our house would have also been in the tornado’s path,” she said.
It was a phone call Lana received from her sister in Medicine Lodge that provided some details of the news unfolding in Hoisington during the trip home. “She was the only person who knew we were in Kansas City that night,” said Lana, noting that at that time, few people owned cellphones. “Fortunately my husband and I both did,” she said. “It was probably on I-70 between Junction City and Salina that I really started to get scared because we kept hearing how bad the storm was.”
Lana described how thick the darkness was that covered the community when they arrived on the outskirts of town. “Coming over the hill, everything was just pitch black,” she said. “We could catch a glimpse of maybe a red or a blue light. It was just a real sinking feeling.”
As they proceeded closer to town, Lana was stopped by crews from the National Guard. “They would not let us in,” said Lana. “Our son-in-law was in the vehicle behind us and they took us to a hotel in Great Bend that night and then they snuck back to Hoisington through some back roads.”
With their home gone, Lana said she and her husband considered leaving Hoisington. “But we had a daughter who was still in high school and we didn’t feel it would be right to pull up roots and leave,” she said. “So we just decided to rebuild and stay right here.”
From the outside looking in
If there was a front row seat to the backside of the storm, Rhonda Templing occupied it. Templing, who lives on a farm near Susank and operates her own business, was born in what was once the Hoisington Lutheran Hospital and is a graduate of Hoisington High.
On the night of the tornado, Templing watched the storm from the family farm as it mounted its assault.
“Because it was dark outside and the distance, I wasn’t able to see the tornado but there was plenty of lightning, thunder and wind to put me on edge,” said Templing. “We had the radios on and we knew something big was either happening or about to happen.” Things did not become clear until sunrise the following morning.
“Again, we knew there was something bad out there in the dark but had no idea exactly what took place until the next day,” Templing said. “I got a call that Sunday from my uncle in Los Angeles who wanted to know what was happening in Hoisington. I think he might have known as much or more information that far away than we did in the same county where everything happened.” She explained that because of a loss of power and radio communication that night, there was no way of deciphering any reliable information right after the event.
Templing said from her observation, advanced warning systems have improved over the last two decades, enabling law enforcement to alert the public in a quicker fashion and save lives. “I think things have gotten better,” she said. “Just the other night we had a storm pop up and there were some sightings but fortunately they never got close to any towns or structures. It also helps that we have spotters on the ground, which helps to reinforce all the advance warning systems that are in place today.”
Even for people who were in Hoisington and witnessed the tornado’s wrath, Templing said she wasn’t sure if some of the townspeople knew just how bad the situation was.
“From talking to people who were in town that night, I heard several different accounts of what took place,” said Templing. “I don’t think some of the kids at the prom knew how bad things actually were. I think it just happened so fast that people really didn’t have time to take in how destructive this particular tornado was.”
While Templing did not have any family in Hoisington that night, she did have plenty of friends who lost homes and suffered other casualties. “I go to church at Emmanuel Lutheran in Hoisington and several of our members’ homes were completely destroyed,” said Templing. “I used to clean many of those houses that are now gone.”
The church building sustained some damage but that was minor in comparison to what neighborhoods endured just east of the hospital, including the high school just across the street on K-4. “In fact, they used our church for students to finish up classes while crews were cleaning up the damage to the schools,” Templing said. “The high school couldn’t be used for the next several weeks so we were able to step in and provide some makeshift facilities in our Sunday school rooms and fellowship hall.”
How now shall we live?
For better or worse, time changes people. For the folks of Hoisington, 20 years has served as a period for introspection and reflections of lessons that can only be learned when people are forced to face their own mortality. Those reminders of life and death can come through any channel, whether it’s a tornado, a pandemic, civil unrest or a host of other events that can shake us to the core. “I know I’ve changed,” said Detective David Paden. “This whole experience has taught me not to take anything or anyone at face value, and always, always expect the worst and pray for the best.”