GREENSBURG, Kan. - The death toll from a tornado that nearly obliterated this farming town climbed by two to 10 people yesterday, but residents said it could have been far worse if not for a 20-minute warning that gave them time to take shelter in storm cellars and basements.
"We had plenty of warning," said Gary Goodheart, whose house was gutted, with only a few walls left standing. "If people paid attention to sirens, they should have been able to get to a safe place."
Cadaver dogs worked alongside residents of this central Kansas town of 1,500, who were allowed back in, until 6 p.m., to scour the rubble for whatever belongings could be salvaged.
One of the two bodies found yesterday was in debris, and the other was in the Kiowa County State Fishing Lake. Also, two survivors were found late Sunday night when a passerby heard the women yell from a church basement.
The 1.7-mile-wide Category F5 tornado, the most powerful to hit the United States in eight years, destroyed about 95 percent of the town Friday night. It also left 13 people hospitalized, four in critical condition. Two others were killed from the storm system in other parts of Kansas. F5 tornadoes have wind speeds of 261 to 318 m.p.h.
In this tornado-prone region, residents knew what to do when they heard the rarely issued "tornado emergency" alert and scurried into basements and storm cellars. When it passed, they pushed out through debris, their walls and roofs blown away.
A step above the typical tornado warning, a tornado emergency is used when an extremely dangerous storm is headed directly for a populated area, meteorologist Jennifer Ritterling said.
The typical lead time for a tornado is 10 to 18 minutes, Ritterling said, but the storm's extreme size made it simpler to spot and predict its movements.
"The strong and violent ones are easier to detect than the smaller tornadoes," she said. "We try not to cry wolf and send out false alarms for things that aren't rotating."
The government's response to the disaster was undermined by ongoing National Guard deployments to the Middle East, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower," Sebelius said. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."
Sebelius said she would address the issue with President Bush when he arrives in Greensburg to tour the damage tomorrow. White House spokesman Tony Snow rejected the criticism, saying the National Guard had equipment positioned around the country to respond to disasters when requested by states.
School was canceled for what remained of the year, Superintendent Darin Headrick said. But he reassured students and staff: "Our teachers will have jobs; our kids will have classrooms to attend. This is going to be a huge hurdle for people to overcome, but it will also be a huge opportunity."
Tree trunks stood bare in Greensburg, stripped of most of their branches. All the churches were destroyed. Every business on Main Street was demolished, and the town's fire engines were crushed.
The massive concrete silos of a grain elevator towered over the flattened expanse of what was left of the town.
Near downtown, a woman supported by two others stopped frequently along U.S. 54, breaking down in sobs.
"If I hear that people are going stay and we're going to have a school, then I'll stay," said Greensburg High School shop teacher Peter Kern, who had lived in the town for the last year. "If we don't have a school, I don't have a job."
Flooding forced hundreds
of people yesterday from their homes in the Topeka, Kan., area and blocked streets and highways after a weekend of violent thunderstorms across
the central Plains.
Authorities rescued more than 500 people from flooded homes around Topeka, said Shawnee County spokesman Dave Bevans. He said he had no reports of injuries, and said water had started to recede by early afternoon.
Eighteen people had to be rescued from roofs in Wakarusa, south of Topeka, authorities said.
Topeka had measured
6.73 inches of rain since Sunday morning, and more rain was expected, the National Weather Service said.
Flooding also blocked roads in parts of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa, and chased people from their homes. A man drowned in western Oklahoma when high water swept his car off a road near Elk City, the Highway Patrol said.
- Associated Press
See videos from the scene via http://go.philly.com/