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Winds put first responders to the test
Truck at US 56
Crews respond to a report of an overturned semi Wednesday afternoon east of Great Bend on U.S. 56.

Semi-truck flips over

A semi-truck flips over on US-56 East of Great Bend. High winds have created clouds of dirt in central Kansas causing traffic accidents, power outages, and fire hazards.

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High winds blowing through Kansas weren’t the only thing first-responders were dealing with Wednesday.

By the time wind velocities — which reached on average in excess of 70 mph throughout the western and central parts of the state — had subsided Wednesday afternoon, communities in northwest and north central Kansas continued to battle scattered wildfires that raged into the night. 

In Russell County, where straight-line winds were clocked at a record 100 mph during the afternoon, the unincorporated towns of Waldo, Paradise and Fairport were evacuated on threat of fire. Evacuees were sheltered at the Russell 4-H building.

An estimated 253 square miles in Russell County has been affected, with reports still being tabulated. At last count, the county lost around 10 structures, including homes and barns. The Kansas National Guard and Kansas Forest Service were called in to assist with fire suppression efforts late Wednesday.

Dust from the windstorm and smoke from the wildfires were carried as far east as the Great Lakes region by the end of the day.

The blow hits Barton County

Barton County’s first responders were already braced for the coming storm Wednesday, thanks to a Dodge City National Weather Service warning the day before. Motorists were warned of low-visibility and additional dangers to high-profile vehicles due to the wind. County officials were also braced, with burn bans due to pre-existing dry conditions already in place.

On Wednesday in Barton County, the wind began picking up around noon. One of the first reports related to the windstorm involved a semi-trailer that had blown over on U.S. 56 near the Bartlett Grain Company at 15 NE 60 Ave., east of Great Bend. The driver was uninjured. The vehicle’s high profile and empty trailer were contributing factors in the incident, Sheriff Brian Bellendir noted. “Once our team arrived, the wrecker elected to wait to upright the vehicle because it would have just blown over again,” he said. 

Impact of the windstorm increased as the day wore on. “You really don’t know what to expect until you’re in it,” Sheriff Bellendir said. “I’ve seen windstorms before, but this is probably the worst one I’ve ever been involved in.”

Reports that included communication problems, utility problems, storm damage, fires and more accidents continued to be received throughout the day. 

In-town reports in Great Bend included: power outage at Great Bend Middle School and selected businesses and residences; trees and power lines down on Broadway; a row of utility poles snapped at Veterans Park; and yard furniture and play equipment blown away.

A large portion of the sheriff’s office was also busy providing agency assistance to neighboring areas. BCSO also was called to Hoisington, Claflin, Ellinwood and various parts of the county. Later in the day, two units were dispatched to a two-vehicle non-injury crash on U.S. 56 about 3 miles east of Pawnee Rock in Pawnee County.

“The problem we ran into in Pawnee County was visibility,” Bellendir said. “You couldn’t see past the front of your car and you couldn’t move any traffic. You just had to ensure that the traffic was stopped.” 

An alternate route using Pawnee County roads was established, but the dirt roads added to visibility issues. Barton County also assisted with a injury incident that occurred on the detour roadway.

“Overall, we just had a lot of blowing dirt in the county and it was just difficult to see,” Bellendir said. “It would clear for a little and then come back again.

“It absolutely could have been a lot worse than it was,” he said. “We’ve been through this before, where generally speaking these things would happen pretty quick and were gone. This was more sustained than normal and the bottom line is just being able to make adjustments while you are on the scene.”

Aftereffects continue following the day’s events.

“Obviously, the utility companies are working on putting poles back up on NW 10 Ave., where there is about a half-mile of poles down. County crews are out putting stop signs and things back up. There’s a lot of businesses with roof damage and we had one building blown down in the county. There’s quite a bid of damage, but not super-bad. All the roads are opened up again and we were fortunate not to have any serious injuries.”

Great Bend Police Chief Steve Haulmark noted that the Great Bend Police Department met the situation and was pleased with the results.

“FEMA puts our officers through training to get through situations like this,” he said. “You can’t see how an individual uses the training until a situation like this presents itself. 

“Yesterday, the Great Bend Police Department did what they needed to do, were required to do. We were stretched thin, yes, but we did great work to deal with the situation.”

Other county communities affected

In Hoisington, a brief power outage was addressed by local generation from the Hoisington power plant to cover vulnerable populations in the community, noted Hoisington City Manager Jonathan Mitchell.

“We had a couple small fires that we were able to cover with our fire department, and we were able to dispatch a truck to assist on a report from Rush County,” Mitchell said. “We did have other needs to residences and businesses, but the important thing was that we were able to cover our vulnerable populations at the hospital, at the schools and vital services. Residents and businesses were reporting roof damage and trees down.

“The important thing was the patience and support our first responders received in the community,” Mitchell noted. “At the end of the day, we had a restaurant donate chicken strip dinners to our first-responder crews and that was greatly appreciated.”

The Claflin community was without power for several hours and experienced a share of wind damage. In Ellinwood, first responders were engaged by small blazes, downed trees and utility issues.

Long day in Pawnee County

In Larned, Sheriff’s Deputy and County Emergency Preparedness Director Josh Huff braced for the oncoming storm. A non-injury crash call was reported just after 2 p.m. from K-156 east of the U.S. Highway 183 junction in western Pawnee County. He had been warned, by monitoring radio reports coming in from the western part of the state.

“I headed over to Burdett when it hit, because the electricity was already out,” Huff said. “There were branches down and some damage to roofs. I headed back to Rozel and that’s when the motor vehicle call came in.”

By that time, the wind had arrived in force. “It was a complete wall, when it hit. Huff said. “It was like a light switch on, then off.”

Locating the accident was made difficult because cars were stopped all along the highway. “You were literally feeling your way among the stopped cars,” he said. The accident was a rear-end collision near Rozel. 

Pawnee County Undersheriff Larry Atteberry was next to arrive to the scene, when in a matter of minutes, another accident occurred. “We were doing a lot of things at once by that time,” Atteberry noted. “The rear-end accident had completely blocked the highway so we were trying to get traffic stopped. For a while, we were completely shut down, with two accident scenes going.”

Meanwhile, Pawnee County Sheriff Scott King had arrived at the junction to help with traffic control. Shortly after his arrival, however, the call came in about the crash near Pawnee Rock. “At that point, we were working on trying to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’,” King said. “We got a sort of caravan going, with emergency vehicles at front and back ends and our vehicles in the middle and headed over.”

Fortunately, Barton County radioed in with an offer of agency assistance and then sent two units for traffic control. An alternate route to the south and west to Larned was set up around the scene using county roads.

By that time, “we had between 50-60 cars on the east side of the county,” King said. “We tried to keep people moving, but whenever we tried, that wall was just there to stop us. It was almost impossible to drive the county roads because of the corn stalks and dust.”

In the interim, another vehicle had overturned going south on the detour. The driver was pinned, which required extrication. Another extrication situation developed on a driver with a leg injury, which resulted in transport to Great Bend.

Other deputies were put to work clearing debris that collected on the roadway.

The winds died down about 4:30, King said. But that’s when the fires started.

Pawnee County firefighters responded to two field fires and a shed fire in the Larned city limits in about 60 minutes at the end of the business day Wednesday. All were minor and extinguished without significant damage.

“I would just like to say, this was a time when everybody really stepped up,” Huff said. “All day, we had farmers calling in to say that they had their water tanks refilled and a disc hooked up to the tractor if it was needed. That speaks a lot for our rural, agricultural community.”

Overturned semi at Barton, Stafford County line

Wind storm footage of an overturned semi at Barton, Stafford County line on U.S. 281 Highway. Video by Candi Lunsford

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