Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
Ten years ago today, a small Kansas town was almost completely destroyed by an EF-5 tornado, and overnight, the national spotlight was focused on Greensburg. But it was not the only Kansas community that sustained damage, albeit not as severe, during that storm. That same weekend, families in rural Barton and Stafford counties also hunkered down in basements, closets and bathrooms praying they would be spared nature’s destructive tantrum.
As the storm passed, the people in those communities emerged from their homes and surveyed the damage. The Great Bend Tribune carried numerous compelling photos and reports in the days and weeks following this event.
Earlier in the week, several events listed in the pages of the Tribune indicated a fun weekend ahead.
Saturday, Great Bend celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a parade and festival at Jack Kilby Square. Larned’s Santa Fe Trail Days was scheduled, with a fly-in breakfast at the airport and a parade Saturday morning, followed by a ranch rodeo that evening. The parade was held, but the rest of the events were postponed until the following weekend. It was also later learned that food intended for a Larned Fire Department fundraiser was delivered to Haviland and prepared for tornado victims by Larned Firefighters. The Mid-America Mopar annual auto show scheduled to take place in Brit Spaugh Park on Sunday was moved to the Great Bend Expo because of the rain.
Before the storm
The Wednesday, May 2, 2007 newspaper reported on an afternoon storm the day before that resulted in flood warnings, but the National Weather Service predicted a dry weekend. By Friday, the local weather report anticipated partly sunny skies and highs of 82 with lows of 64 in both Greensburg and Great Bend.
Weather takes a turn
The Sunday May 6, 2007 Weekend Edition of the Great Bend Tribune reported how the weather had taken a Kansas turn Friday night. The tornado that hit Greensburg Friday night, a wedge up to 2 miles wide, was described as part of a long-lived storm that moved northwest through Pratt, Stafford and northeast Barton counties. A second thunderstorm put the western part of Barton County on alert well into the early hours of Saturday, and again Saturday night, with tornado sightings near Greensburg, Macksville, Dillwyn, St. John, Ellinwood and Claflin.
Susan Thacker reported, “The super-cell thunderstorm that caused widespread damage in the region Friday night and early Saturday resulted in at least 10 deaths, virtually destroyed a city, and left a Macksville Police officer fighting for his life.
“The storm spawned several tornadoes in addition to the one that destroyed most of Greensburg. Two touched down in Barton County, peeling the roof off a house near the Dartmouth grain elevator and taking a swipe at the historic Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church on the way to Claflin, which received some of the worst damage in the county, but no casualties.”
The front page included photos of rural St. John residents whose farms were wrecked from a tornado Friday night, as well as a photo of the mangled patrol car driven by Macksville Police Officer Robert Buckman who was hit by a tornado while on duty. He was trapped in the car when found, and was flown to Wichita by Life Watch air ambulance.
Both the Patterson and Cotton families were joined by friends the next day who helped with cleanup there, but Buckman continued to fight for his life. Sadly, it was reported later that week that he had died as a result of his injuries. “He died being a hero,” his son, Derick Buckman said. “He was sworn to protect people and that’s what he was doing the night he got picked up by a tornado.”
Daniel Kiewel, a Tribune paginator at the time, remembers everyone at the Tribune being on duty Saturday morning, May 5, doing their part to put out the Sunday paper. Living in Hoisington at the time, he went to Claflin to report on the damage sustained there, and brought back the photo of the tornado damaged grain elevator lying on the roof of Bailey’s Food Bin, having blown across K-4 in the storm.
“Though the city of Claflin escaped human toll, it was not unconnected to the tragedies in other parts of the state. Several Claflin residents described connections to family and friends in both Greensburg and Macksville.”
Ellinwood church hit
Dale Hogg reported on Ellinwood. While the tornado that damaged Sts. Peter and Paul church to the northeast only grazed the city, residents spent the night hunkered down just in case.
“Within the city limits of this small Barton county community ... residents cleaned up from the winds that accompanied the tornados that bypassed Ellinwood in the wee Saturday hours. Chain saws buzzed. Roofers hammered. Mounds of shattered limbs punctuated the brick streets of a town known for its beautiful trees.”
Rural residents sustained more extensive damage to their properties, and members of the church were in a state of shock.
“We have no idea what we’re going to do,” a distraught Leona Birzer said. She is a board member for the 135-year-old Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church. One of the tornadoes had stripped the steeple off the stately brick church and tore a hole in the roof. The cross that once stood at the peak rested in a grove of trees.
“One of the stained-glass windows in the front of the church was shattered. Crumbled bricks, scraps of tin and pieces of wooden slats were scattered about the churchyard. Inside the ornate church, there was little damage.”
The Sts. Peter and Paul Heritage Association appealed to its membership, raising funds to restore the landmark church. On May 15, 2015, the new steeple was placed atop the new bell tower. On Oct. 18, 2015, a dedication ceremony and celebration was held.
The view from above
The days that followed brought more reports from areas affected. Hogg flew over the area with Ed Weatherford in his Piper, taking photos of the swollen Arkansas River, and the paths of the tornadoes.
Hogg, when asked this week about his reflection on that flight, said he was happy to accept Weatherford’s invitation.
“When you see the destruction up above compared to seeing it up close on the ground, the difference is striking and really quite amazing.”
It was not lost on Great Bend residents how lucky they were compared to other communities. While many mobilized to help where they could, it wasn’t all serious work. Some were busy fishing Veteran’s Park Lake Monday, where “unsuspecting fish were deposited by high water in places far removed from their native streams and rivers.” Some tall tales resulted from the storm. Amazingly, Timothy Barry, Great Bend, caught both a 36-pound and a 38-pound carp at the intersection of 10th and Washington that Sunday night
“I just went out into the water...I saw some big ones swimming around.” One of the fish hit the back of his leg, he said, almost knocking him down.
Brian Hanzlick, game warden for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, explained, the fish, mostly large, pregnant females, had come from the duck ponds at Brit Spaugh Park, ending up in storm drains. “It’s spawning season, and they headed up against the current.”
Coverage of the aftermath continued for several weeks, as people Barton and Stafford Counties picked up the pieces and resumed their lives. Greensburg became national news for many months, as the country followed the rebuilding, complete with photo ops with the president, congressmen, the governor and celebrities helping to rebrand the town as a “green” burg. Today, the average person driving through that city will find many modern homes and businesses and a beautiful high school that is state-of-the-art. While many residents initially moved away from Greensburg, unable to wait for jobs and for a place to live, many stuck it out or returned as they could.
And many lessons were learned here at home, preparing our local communities to mobilize if and when a similar weather event comes our way. Nearly two weeks after the storm, editor Chuck Smith looked back at the last devastating storm that destroyed much of Great Bend in 1915 comparing it to that recent storm. With 93 years of perspective gained, it wasn’t hard to simply marvel about the oddities left in the wake of that long-ago tornado. But also wasn’t lost on anyone the importance of preparation, because storms like the one experienced a decade ago usually don’t provide advance warning.