Category Archives: History

Lightning destroys El Dorado house and Moline church that dated back to 1800s

Lightning from the powerful line of thunderstorms that rolled through the Wichita metropolitan area early Friday morning is being blamed for a fire that destroyed a house in El Dorado and a church in Moline that dated back to the late 1800s.

The owner of the house was awakened by a smoke detector shortly after 2:30 a.m. and found smoke filling the second floor of the three-bedroom house at 321 N. Star that was built in 1880. Firefighters were on scene within eight minutes, El Dorado Fire Capt. Ricke Whiteside said.

The fire ignited and spread inside a 6-inch crawl space between the roof and the second-floor ceiling, Whiteside said, and crews had to peel off the roof and pull down the ceiling to get to the flames.

“Basically, it’s going to be a total loss,” Whiteside said. “There’s no roof or ceiling on the second floor” and the first floor sustained heavy water damage.

As the storms moved east, lightning hit the bell tower of the Moline Christian Church, which Pastor Stan Rumbaugh said may be as much as 130 years old.

Lightning struck the bell tower of the Moline Christian Church shortly before 3 a.m., starting a fire that destroyed the building dating back to the 1880s.

“For a block around the church, people were talking about how felt the shock and heard it” when the lightning hit shortly before 3 a.m.

Though strong gusts of wind hit Moline periodically through the night, Rumbaugh said they were relatively calm while the church burned, sparing St. Mary Catholic Church next door. When the bell tower fell, it missed the house to the north by only a foot or two.

The fire burned the structure down to the brick walls that were installed when the basement was added in 1926, Rumbaugh said. The concrete staircase to the front door now looks like the jump-off point to “the pit” that used to be the basement, he said.

Witnesses said the lightning struck the bell tower, and fire quickly spread through the church, which was about 130 years old.

Folks sorting through the rubble have found pieces of the church bell, as well as reminders of what was used as building materials in the 1880s.

“We’ve been picking up a handful of square nails,” Rumbaugh said.

The 40-member congregation will meet at the American Legion building this Sunday.

“We’re looking at kicking prospects and ideas around” for what they can do down the road, Rumbaugh said. They’ll get a better feel for the possibilities once they get the insurance check from the agent.

For now, as they sifted through the rubble on Friday, it was time to remember – and mourn the loss of the only home they’ve had since the 1800s.

“Some of the emotional feelings are starting to come out,” Rumbaugh said, struggling to keep his voice from breaking.

Not even the Dust Bowl was this dry in Oklahoma

Here’s a troubling story about how dry the last four months have been in Oklahoma. It hasn’t been this dry over the same period since 1921 – even dryer than the Dirty Thirties.

While it hasn’t been quite that bad in Kansas, wildfires that erupted around the state over the past several days provide stark testimony to how parched the Sunflower State is in its own right.

Wichita went three months without dropping below 60

While Wichita had a healthy dose of 100s this past summer, the real reason 2010 went down as the hottest summer in 30 years was what happened once the sun went down.

For 95 straight days, the thermometer never dropped below 60 in Wichita. That’s the third-longest streak of its kind since records began being kept in the city in 1888, according to the National Weather Service.

Only 1922 with 98 straight days and 1980 with 96 were longer. It’s rather fitting, I’d say, that 2010 was a close third to 1980, given their places in the weather record books.

Wichita went from May 21 to August 24 without seeing the 50s this year. As recently as Sept. 22, however, the overnight low was 74.

Sept. 22, ironically, is the date for earliest freeze in Wichita history.

Saturday’s Yazoo City tornado finds place in tornado history

The tornado that smashed Yazoo City on Saturday was wider than the Greensburg tornado – though not as strong – and had one of the longest damage paths in recorded tornado history, weather officials say.

The tornado was on the ground for 149 miles, from 5 miles west of Tallulah, Louisiana, to about 5 miles north of Sturgis, Miss. The tornado was on the ground for nearly 3 hours and reached a maximum width of 1.75 miles. The Greensburg tornado, by comparison, was measured at 1.7 miles wide – though it should be noted that it was not the widest tornado in the outbreak of May 4, 2007.

Storm damage surveys placed Saturday’s tornado at EF3 during much of its path but EF4 through Yazoo and Holmes counties.

That only 10 people died and nearly 50 were injured by the large tornado is a testament to early warnings and residents responding appropriately. Witnesses said the tornado was often difficult to see because it was rain-wrapped.

Storm chaser Dick McGowan shared this photo of the tornado as it neared Yazoo City.

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Only five tornadoes in recorded history have confirmed damage paths longer than the Yazoo City tornado, which traversed nearly the entire width of Mississippi before dissipating.

The longest track of them all belongs to the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which was on the ground for 219 miles. That tornado killed nearly 700 people.

It’s safe to say that without modern warning systems, Saturday’s monstrous, long-lived tornado would have killed hundreds as well.

Remembering the Hoisington tornado

This is the ninth anniversary of the Hoisington tornado, which so easily could have earned a place among the deadliest twisters in Kansas history.

While severe weather had been considered a threat earlier in the evening in central Kansas, the danger appeared to dissipate as the sun went down. Storm chasers I know who had tracked the thunderstorms for hours abandoned the hunt and drove to nearby Great Bend for a late dinner.

While they were in a restaurant, the power flickered, and minutes later they heard the sound of sirens racing north toward Hoisington. They abandoned their meal and drove to Hoisington, where they found the northern half of the city had been hammered.

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The funnel touched down just a mile southwest of the city at 9:15 p.m. and quickly grew into a large tornado. Within three minutes, it had intensified to an F4, with winds of more than 200 miles an hour.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado chewed up a path of “almost complete destruction” along a path two miles long and two blocks wide through northwest Hoisington. Two people died from injuries suffered in the tornado, and more than two dozen were injured.

The tornado destroyed 182 homes and 12 businesses, smashing the town’s grocery store and ripping a roof off the hospital. As it exited the north side of town, the tornado weakened rapidly. After crossing Deception Creek three miles northeast of town, the tornado suddenly curled to the northwest, damaging two farmsteads before it fell apart.

If that late curl sounds familiar, there’s a reason: the Greensburg tornado did the same thing in 2007.

Just like with the Greensburg tornado, the Hoisington tornado’s death toll could have been far higher. The tornado touched down at night, grew quickly to a large, dangerous twister and plowed through a residential neighborhood only a few minutes later. Fortunately, residents had taken shelter and stayed there even after hearing the severe threat had eased. Conditions around Hoisington simply didn’t feel right, survivors later said, so they stayed put.

I arrived in Hoisington early the next morning to cover the aftermath. No matter how many times you’ve seen tornado damage, there’s something startling – disconcerting, even – about seeing entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Residents were carefully retrieving whatever they could salvage from the wreckage, or just surveying the debris, their emotions as shattered as their homes. At moments like that, I simply let people talk. It’s not a time for complex questions or answers.

MEMBER SHOWCASE

One thing I’ve noticed every time I’ve covered a tornado-damaged area is the wrestling match that occurs within me. One part of me is trying to describe accurately and vividly what’s happened while another part strives to grasp the enormity of the destruction. You can’t visit the aftermath of a Greensburg, Andover or Hoisington without pondering the strength of the natural forces that caused such destruction. It’s just as true at a remote farmstead, though the sheer magnitude of destruction in an urban setting intensifies the sense of shock.

In most of the ways that matter, Hoisington was fortunate on that April night in 2001. Residents paid attention to the conditions and took appropriate precautions, which kept the death toll from being much higher. It’s a lesson residents of Tornado Alley would do well to embrace today as well.

A milestone day for weather satellites

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first weather satellite, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The first image from the satellite, known as TIROS-1 (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), was a fuzzy picture of thick bands and clusters of clouds over the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An image captured a few days later revealed a typhoon about a 1,000 miles east of Australia.

The first satellite lasted only 78 days, but by 1965 meteorologists were combining satellite images to create the first global images of the world’s weather.

It’s National Weatherman’s Day

Today commemorates the birth of John Jeffries in 1744. A Boston physician and one of America’s first weather observers, Jeffries began taking daily weather observations in Boston in 1774.

According to the National Weather Service, he took the first balloon weather observation over London in 1784. He carried a thermometer, a barometer, and a hygrometer to the height of 9000 feet.

This “holiday” recognizes the men and women who collectively provide Americans with weather, water, and climate forecasts, as well as warning services.

It’s almost fitting that the 2010 commemoration comes at the same time an “epic” snowstorm (to use a term uttered by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official) is bearing down on the Atlantic seaboard.

Lies and statistics

Whenever someone looks back on the weather statistics for December 14, 2009, they’ll see the high temperature for Wichita that day was 49.

And they’ll think it was a reasonably pleasant day for mid-December in the heart of the Great Plains. Now, those of us who actually experienced it will know Monday was anything but pleasant, with daytime highs in the 20s and wind chills at times below zero.

That 49 was recorded not long after midnight, before the latest arctic air mass arrived to make our teeth chatter. So, technically, the data is accurate — but that quite-tolerable high came at a time when most of us were tucked away in bed.

Sunrise delivered much different conditions.

“Under the weather”

We’ve all heard that phrase now and then – perhaps you’ve even used it.

“Not tonight, thanks. I’m feeling under the weather.”

A friend asked me some time back where that phrase came from…and I had no idea.

Turns out its origins are rather unclear. Several references I checked attribute the phrase to a maritime source dating to the mid-1800s. When a sailor was unwell, he was sent down below to help his recovery, under the deck and away from the weather.

But I’ve also read that the term is actually American in origin dating back to the 1820s, when it also meant feeling ill or indisposed.

Then again, friends can tell you that when I’m feeling a tad ornery I am apt to remind them that unless we’re astronauts on a mission we’re all under the weather, no matter what mood or state of health we’re in.

Raleigh Lackey on perhaps the nation’s first storm chaser

May 25 is engraved in Kansas tornado lore as the date Udall was obliterated by the deadliest tornado in the state’s history.

Former National Weather Service meteorologist Raleigh Lackey remembers May 25 as the date someone first earned the title of “storm chaser.” It happened in 1965, 10 years after the Udall tornado.

As Lackey tells it, David Hoadley came to the Great Plains from his home in the Washington, D.C., area in April 1965 to spot and photograph tornadoes.

“I told Dave that someone searching for tornadic activity needed a title similar to the term “Hurricane Hunter,” Lackey wrote in an e-mail to me.

He told Hoadley, “most single guys his age would probably be chasing girls, while he was out chasing tornadoes.”

He began calling Hoadley “Chaser” whenever he stopped by the Wichita branch of the weather service, where Lackey worked for more than 25 years before retiring in 1988. Coincidentally, “chasseur” is French for hunter.

Hoadley was staying at the Top Hat Motel just west of the Wichita airport, Lackey said. On May 25, 1965, the severe weather potential appeared to be west of Wichita, toward Dodge City. Hoadley reached Dodge at about 1 p.m., and later headed for Minneola and then east to Pratt.

He came back with photos of tornadoes, Lackey said, thus earning the title “storm chaser.”

According to the archives of The Tornado Project, there were tornadoes reported in several Kansas counties that day: Clark, Cheyenne, Clay, Ellsworth, Ford, Lane, Pawnee, Phillips, Pratt, Smith and Stafford.

One of the tornadoes was an F3 that struck not far from Iuka in Pratt County and injured 7 people. Another — one of two to hit Pawnee County — hit the Finger family farm as I took shelter in the basement, ducking my head and covering my ears. I was 4, and I expected the house to be torn apart any moment.

I never saw the tornado, but I heard it and felt the pressure changes as it roared past like a jet engine powering a massive beast. Memories of that day remain vivid, more than 40 years later.