Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series that began Tuesday, Nov. 27. On May 16, a narrow but powerful tornado destroyed homes west of Great Bend. Three of the families affected 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.
Shelby Ochs is a nurse at Great Bend Regional Hospital. On the night of May 16, her family made it to their basement seconds before a tornado tore apart her house, located six miles west of Great Bend on Barton County Road. Shelby was on night shift at the time.
“We had all the patients in our safe zone at the hospital,” she said. I had the police radio on, listening to hear what is going on. I heard it come across there was a tornado on the ground by Pawnee Rock. I called my husband, but he didn’t answer.”
About two minutes later, she received a return call. She could tell from the way Blake was breathing that something was happening, but then the call cut off.
Blake had managed to get both their 3-year-old son, Brecken, and 1-year-old daughter, Harper, into the basement, and went back to let their next door neighbors into the shelter with them.
Meanwhile, Shelby was already headed for home. On her way she received several phone calls from concerned family members and others, some of whom she didn’t even know. Everyone wanted answers, but she had few to give.
“It was scary not knowing what happened and not being able to get a hold of anyone,” she said. She kept trying to reach Blake. Finally, he answered.
“We’re all okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure our house is gone, but we’re all okay.”
As Shelby neared her house, she was met with red and blue lights from law enforcement and EMS.
The house was destroyed, a wall having fallen over the staircase and blocking their exit.
“My husband is a hunter and used his bayonet to cut a hole in the ceiling for them to crawl out. He said he was amazed how quickly help began to arrive.”
First, there were the neighbors. One, a coworker of Shelby’s, was there in moments to find out about the family. Emergency responders began arriving in minutes. Then, friends, family and organizations like the Red Cross and the local Knights of Columbus came to offer assistance and comfort.
The children were taken by friends to a safe location. Arrangements were made at a local hotel for them to stay the night. They stayed a total of three weeks there, while Shelby’s brother finished work on a one-bedroom house he had intended to fix up and sell, providing a place for the Ochs to call home temporarily.
“So many people have been so generous. It’s amazing what the community has done. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed by the amount of people who want to help,” she said.
A friend arranged to have a pallet of boxes delivered, and they began boxing up what they could. Those boxes have sat in storage since the cleanup. The tornado had taken most of the house, but kitchen cabinets had been left on a wall, inside some glasses left untouched, while in others, the plates and pots and pans looked as though they had been lifted and packed with fiberglass insulation from other parts of the house.
“It was strange to see how things were left,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t even know what we were able to salvage. There were so many people there, and we began boxing things up. We didn’t go through any of our things. I’m sure a lot is ruined, everything is covered in fiberglass. We washed some clothes, but they came out itchy.”
Most of the boxes have not been touched yet, simply because the family hasn’t had the space to really take stock. They retrieved a few items for immediate use, but the rest will have to wait.
Shelby spotted and kept a few keepsakes. Her son’s baby book blew away, she knows, but in the firewood pile they found an “I was born at GBRH” onesie. It’s stained, but precious.
Kids remember little
For the first few weeks after the tornado, Blake was a little jumpy. The next few days following the event brought additional rain and hail to the area, which put him on edge. He now takes weather alerts more seriously than ever before.
“They were watching videos that night,” Shelby said. “The only reason they stopped to turn on the television was because an alert came across his phone.”
Neither of Brecken or Harper seemed upset after the event, and they appear unaffected today. Harper was so young, she has no recollection of the events. Brecken was in his pajamas and had his chocolate milk in his hand when she reached them, eager to tell her how it had “rained in the house.”
Six months out, he tells people his house blew away. Sometimes, he’ll ask for toys that he once had before the tornado, but doesn’t appear upset when his parents tell him they don’t have them anymore. Lately, Shelby said, he likes to tell people he’s getting a brand new house.
New home on horizon
The couple initially looked for a home to purchase, but could not find anything that met their needs. It’s tight quarters for now, but the family is grateful to be together. Soon their new modular home will be set where the old house stood. The house has been built, so now it’s only a matter of concrete curing and a date agreed on to set it. Shelby is hopeful that may happen before the end of the year.
“When we found our house a few years ago, it was like our dream house. It was the perfect size, the perfect location, and it had everything we wanted,” she said. It’s not an easy matter to replace. “We never would have imagined we would be designing a new house.”