“We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again,” said Karen Mawhirter, Great Bend Middle School teaching assistant, referring to the April 14 F-4 tornado that wiped out the home and business she shares with her husband, Terry, near St. John.
She should know since she has literally done it before.
In 1999, the Mawhirters also lost their home — located on the same site — to a tornado.
“We figured it couldn’t happen again,” she said about rebuilding the first time. “But it can happen to anyone anytime.
Karen nearly lost her husband in the 1999 storm. He was home alone when the twister ripped through the house. However, rescuers found him virtually unscathed in the only small area left intact in the entire house.
This time, all 11 members of her extended family were unhurt as they huddled together in a 150-year-old storm shelter.
“We had been listening constantly to the weather,” she said, recounting the day of the storm. “We packed as many necessities as we could just in case we got hit … blankets, water, treats, radio, medicines, diapers, extra clothes.”
They realized the tornado was eminent when they received a phone call from her brother who lives in St. John. He told them that the sirens were going off in town and that the storm was moving at 80 miles per hour.
“We put the babies (her four grandchildren) in the shelter first (away from the door),” she said, noting that they were in the shelter about 10 minutes before the tornado struck. “The kids were crying and it was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Things started hitting the shelter. The door started banging and we struggled to keep it shut. My sons were lying on top of their kids so they wouldn’t be sucked out.
“We felt the ground shake with violent vibrations and I thought it was an earthquake,” Karen said, graphically describing the event. “I thought (the tornado) was going to suck the shelter out of the ground.
“After that first hit, it got very quiet. My son started to open the door, but my husband told him to leave it closed,” she said. “Then the back side of the tornado hit.
It was much worse.
“Cracking, banging, slapping, babies crying … we were all crying. We were all clinging to each other,” Karen recalled. “The walls started cracking and I was afraid (the concrete bunker) would cave in. The room started flooding.”
As quickly as it started, it ended.
However, the nightmare wasn’t over yet. They were trapped. The bunker that just moments before had been a shelter from the storm, now seemed like a tomb.
“We couldn’t get out,” she said, noting there was a lot of debris blocking the door.
Her sons and husband finally broke the door free, but not before Kenneth hurt his shoulder from the effort.
But even before they opened the door, Karen knew in her heart it was all gone … again.
“It was about 9:30 at night and all we had were flashlights.
There was debris everywhere. Our cars were blocked in by debris and all of the trucks (semi tractor trailers) were tossed around like toys,” she said. Two semis with trailers attached were picked up and dropped 250 feet away. Another was thrown 100 feet into the backside of the once-standing house. Hundred-year-old cottonwood trees, whose roots were buried deep below the tornado shelter, were uprooted by the winds that reached upwards of 260 mph.
“(We learned that the ‘earthquake’) was the twister pulling hundred-year-old cottonwood trees out by their roots,” she said in awe.
Her son stepped on a nail that went through his foot, but that was the only serious injury. Emergency crews arrived soon after the storm.
The rest of that night until 3 a.m. the next morning, the family wandered the homestead.
“We were looking for something, a sign of something, anything,” she said, realizing now that they were all in a state of shock. “There was such excitement when we found something.”
In addition to losing their home – which was only minimally insured – she and Terry also lost their business, Mawhirter Trucking.
“He’s unemployed now,” she lamented.
“I can take it for me, but to see my kids lose everything …,” she said, her voice cracking. Her son, his wife and their two children also lost their home, which was built next door. He also lost his livelihood since he is partnered with his father.
“We’ve been cleaning up. You have to pick up the pieces and go on,” Karen said. “We’ll be stronger for this. We have faith. You have to laugh in order to keep going.”
“Of course we will rebuild. My son will, too,” she said, laughing. “It can’t happen a third time.”