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Nine Years Later - Kansan
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May 4, 2007 - Greensburg, KS
Nine years later: Tornado changed lives
Survivors remember March 13, 1990, when
county was ravaged by nature's fury

Bill Wilson
Newton Kansan

The Newton Kansan Archives © - March 5, 1999
photo: frontpage
The infamous tornado of March 13, 1990, bears down on Hesston approximately seven minutes before it hits town, looking southwest over Kropf Lumber.
Duane Graham/Special to the Kansan

A phenomenon of tornadoes, straw was found stuck in a tree trunk on the Eli Bontrager farm northeast of Burrton. It's been nine years since a dry line brought unseasonably warm, humid weather to Harvey County. It's been nine years since March 13, 1990, when the convergence of that dry line with cold and warm air masses produced a massive tornado that swept across Harvey County from southwest to northeast, devastating the city of Hesston and claiming one life near Burrton. Another life was lost near Goessel as the huge storm roared into Marion County. Lessons in crisis management For five years, John Waltner had busied himself with the activities of a small-town mayor in Hesston. That muggy March afternoon changed that. "I was working as the county fiscal officer at the courthouse in Newton," Waltner recalled. "We were standing in the administration offices looking out the windows right before 5. I remember one of the secretaries saying, 'It looks pretty ominous out there. Looks like someone's going to lose some houses today.' She had that right." Waltner left the courthouse that day and headed for North Newton to pick up his father, before the two left for Hesston.Saturday, December 8, 2007 22:26t didn't look very good," he said. "So, instead of angling in on 81, we drove to Ridge Road and came in from the south."
photo: frontpage
Looking south at the grain elevator in the center of Hesston, one bin was destroyed, the other, which was half full, was damaged from the top of the grain up. The historic landmark was later torn down.
Duane Graham/Special to the Kansan

From that vantage point a mile and a half behind the storm, it became apparent to Waltner that his town was in trouble.
"You could see it churning its way through town," he said. "You could see all kinds of debris flying. But I really didn't have any idea what part of town had been hit until we drove into town from the south." What Waltner found stunned him. "It was ominously still," he said. "Still nobody out and about until we got over the tracks at Ridge and Old 81. Then, we saw ahead of us what had happened -- nothing but twisted poles, wires and pieces of debris. It was very clear this was serious." Guided by Waltner and an impressive battalion of volunteers, Hesston has rebuilt and gone forward. "I think some of the changes were obvious soon after the tornado occurred," he said. "There was a tremendous amount of new construction, at least for a town our size. The obvious signs of the tornado were minimized, almost eliminated, very quickly in our town with all the construction." That construction spurred, in part, a period of growth in Hesston that continues to this day, the mayor said. "The psyche of our town is another matter," Waltner said. "I think that largely because of the way we were able to deal with those first several months, it really had a significantly positive impact on the community. Our people were able not to look back at the tornado as an experience where we buried many of our friends, neighbors and family, but one in which we were truly in need of help."
photo: frontpage
bout 16 hours after the tornado struck, the view around Hesston Concrete, looking west, was complete destruction.
Duane Graham/Special to the Kansan

Community members, buttressed by legions of volunteer forces from the area, stepped to the plate for the clean-up effort, and that teamwork has marked Hesston forever, Waltner said.
"We received an awful lot of help, and a lot of people in the community worked very hard on the recovery," he said. "That very act was kind of a cathartic one, I think. In that respect, it made a significant impact on the community." But it also increased the community's awareness of the tragedies around them, Waltner said. "I'm not saying it was a profoundly changing experience, but last fall when the hurricane hit Central America and MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) issued a call for hurricane relief kids, our kids got into that at the school," Waltner said. "The student body met and the kids told others about how when we were in need, people rallied to our cause from all over the place. It really helped with the response from students and other community members. The reminder is always there." Lucas' home A drive down Burmac south of Burrton toward Kent and Dixie Fisher's brick home gives few clues to what happened there on March 13, 1990. Only the noticeable absence of trees, plus the still-twisted appearance of those that remain, trigger the memories of the huge twister that blew through. "Every year that goes by, you count the years," Dixie Fisher said. "Sometimes it seems like it happened yesterday, other times it seems like it's been forever." That humid March day, Dixie Fisher and her kids took textbook precautions as the huge twister approached from southern Reno County, huddling in the southwest corner of their basement. In a freak of nature, when the twister slammed into the house, it collapsed the chimney onto 6-year-old Lucas Fisher as he huddled with his family, one of two fatalities in the area as the tornado -- at F4 as it tracked from Burrton to Hesston, then at F5 as it merged with another twister just north of Hesston -- dubbed the county's worst in history swept through. Today, the Fisher's home is rebuilt. Lucas' brother Garrett is a Class 3 cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Lucas' brother Brandon is at Hutchinson Community College, studying to be an eye doctor. Much of the evidence of that day's destruction has faded. But the memories haven't. "I guess you'd say life's back to normal," Dixie Fisher said. "But you always follow Lucas' class. You go to the ballgames in town and you see the kids in his class playing. It can dog you." The Fishers quickly rebuilt, determined to stay in "Lucas' home."
photo: frontpage
A phenomenon of tornadoes, straw was found stuck in a tree trunk on the Eli Bontrager farm northeast of Burrton.
Duane Graham/Special to the Kansan

"We built the house back as it was," Dixie Fisher said. "At first, that was kind of hard, but now we've adjusted to it. It was the only house Lucas knew, and we wanted to stay in it. It's the only house he lived in."
Lucas Fisher's memory remains alive in other ways, primarily through the Lucas Fisher Scholarship Fund administered by Burrton's volunteer fire department. "The money we had for his college fund, what I did was gave it to the fire department as a thank you," Dixie Fisher recalled. "It was their idea to start the scholarship fund. The first year it will be used is when his class (currently sophomores at Burrton High School) graduates." The fund is supplemented every fall by the proceeds from the fire department's annual hog roast. Understandably, Dixie and Kent Fisher pay close attention to the storms of spring. "You have to have respect for the weather," she said. "If it says on the radio or television that there's a tornado warning, then you need to have respect for the weather." Steve Bayless: Job first, house later Harvey County Sheriff's Detective Steve Bayless was a road patrolman for the county that day, working in his office in Newton. Later that day, he'd watch with odd detachment as his house was destroyed by the tornado, focused instead on warning the citizens of Hesston of impending disaster. "We got a weather alert at the office that there was a tornado on the ground somewhere around Castleton (in southern Reno County)," Bayless recalled. "It was moving to the northeast." So, Bayless hopped in his cruiser and headed west on U.S. 50 toward Burrton. One gaze to the southwest later, he knew the county was in trouble. "As I got closer to Burrton, you could see this huge wall cloud to the southwest," he said. He drove two miles south of Burrton, then west to the Bryant Sand and Gravel pit to watch. "First thing I see is the tornado clearly on the ground a mile south of me," he said. "I watched it go through the Paradise Isle (water resort) area, then I started to track it. The first real damage I was aware of was at the Fisher house." Bayless ran to the Fisher residence, but couldn't get an answer when he yelled. So, with Burrton fire crews on the scene to begin assessing damage, and with the rapidly widening twister churning just southeast of Burrton, he made the decision to follow it. "At this point, we're in the warning mode," Bayless said. "Our job is to monitor the path of the storm and keep in touch with the people in it's path through dispatch."
photo: frontpage
The tornado struck many residences as well as businesses in Hesston, like the Gene Yoder home near King Park.
Duane Graham/Special to the Kansan

He watched the huge twister slam into the Eli Bontrager farmstead just west of Burrton. It was then that Bayless knew his home, and the towns just north of his home, were in grave danger.
"On the (dispatch) tape, you can hear me call in," he said. "I'm telling dispatch again to sound the sirens for Moundridge and Hesston, and it's gonna hit my house." One mile south of where Steve and Vicki Bayless lived, the sheriff's deputy sat and watched as his life was sucked into the vortex of a tornado. "You could see the structures at our place, then you see a whole lot of dirt and some debris going up into the funnel cloud," he said. "Then, it clears and the site doesn't look at all like it used to." With sheriff's deputies deployed, Bayless could have packed it in and tried to salvage what was left of his home. That wasn't what he did. "Two things immediately went through my mind," he said. "Nobody was home. I knew my daughter had a doctor's appointment and they weren't there. Second, I'd already seen so much destruction. I could best spend my time tracking the thing." "The thing" was an awesome sight, Bayless said. "It was just huge," he said. "The vortex -- if it came to a point -- would have had to be 100 feet down into the ground. It was so wide at the base. And there was the roar, this loud roar." So, the deputy drove on. "By then, I was pretty sure it wasn't going to hit Moundridge, but I knew things weren't looking good for Hesston and I called that in," he recalled "I was real close to the south edge of Hesston as the tornado moved through. I recall seeing the water tower near the ballpark moving, and wondering if it was going to come down. "And, I remember driving on through Hesston," he Saturday, December 8, 2007 22:26wister until it moved into Marion County. Then, the magnitude of what he had seen sunk in. "Before this happened to us, I'd been to lots of tragedies -- house fires, floods, tornadoes -- and I always had empathy for people and their suffering," he said. "But until you've lost every last thing you own, until you don't even have a wash cloth, you don't have a clue. It took us a whole year to recover from that. Something attributable to the tornado was constantly happening." Like the letter Bayless got in the mail from a Manhattan physician. "This guy had a farm north of Manhattan with horses," he recalled. "One day, he notices his dog barking at a piece of paper. It was one of our canceled checks, ironically enough a check for house insurance. We thought that was kind of neat."
Bibliography - Sources for this page
Wilson, Bill., Nine years later: Tornado changed lives - Survivors remember March 13, 1990, when county was ravaged by nature's fury. [Internet] The Newton Kansan, 5 Mar. 1999, Available from: http://thekansan.com/stories/030599/fro_0305990001.shtml

Graham, Duane, Special to the Kansan. 5 Mar. 1999. The Newton Kansan (photos)


Updated Saturday, December 8, 2007 22:26


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