April 14, 2013

Oaklawn residents picking up the pieces a year after tornado

The sign in front of a mobile home in the park says it best: “We were Scared, Depressed, Worried, Desolate.” But the sign also says that one year later, thanks to volunteers, church groups, neighbors and others, “We’re on the road to recovery.”

The sign in front of a mobile home in the park says it best: “We were Scared, Depressed, Worried, Desolate.”

But the sign also says that one year later, thanks to volunteers, church groups, neighbors and others, “We’re on the road to recovery.”

The sign, made by a resident of the Pinaire Mobile Home Park in Oaklawn, is decorated by a drawing of a large tornado with a red slash mark through it, meaning that tornadoes no longer are permitted in the park.

Nobody was killed or seriously injured when a mile-wide EF-3 tornado churned through the park and other areas of southeast Wichita last year on the night of April 14. But the tornado damaged 257 homes, including 130 mobile homes, and 69 businesses. Seven structures at Spirit AeroSystems were hit. The storm caused an estimated $146.3 million in damages.

Before that night, 132 homes filled the Pinaire Mobile Home Park at 5205 S. Clifton. One year later, only 65 are occupied, some by people who lost their homes in the same park a year ago and swore they’d never return.

Wendy and Keith Howell lost their home that night. They spent a couple of days in a motel with their two dogs and two daughters, then rented a house. The house was small and expensive because rates had been increased, Wendy Howell said. Furthermore, their daughters, ages 11 and 12, had to go to Wichita public schools instead of Derby schools and didn’t like it.

So they moved back to Pinaire five months later.

“We decided it was better financially and for the girls to move back. Plus, everyone we knew was here,” she said.

Wendy Howell, who works at the Judge James Riddel Boys Ranch, said she still gets grief from her husband for not heeding his warnings that night. She had watched movies all day while he watched the weather on another TV. He kept telling her bad weather was heading their way.

Her husband, who works for Commercial Mechanical as a plumber, isn’t from Kansas, and Wendy, a Kansas native, kept telling him not to worry. Finally, he told her he was taking the girls to the shelter. She tagged along reluctantly. The tornado struck moments after they arrived.

“We heard this big old bang and noises that were unfamiliar,” Wendy Howell said. “A few minutes later, it was all quiet.

“We went outside, and there was fire from the gas lines, it was raining, and my first thought was, ‘Oh, crap.’ Houses were gone. It looked like a war zone.”

The front of their home was gone. The rest of her family who lived in the park – her mother, sister, brother and niece – all lost their homes. Her mother and niece have since returned to the park.

Howell said she’d probably heed her husband’s warnings if another storm were headed their way.

“I’d like to think lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” Howell said. “But I think I would go more willingly this time.”

Many came back

Robert Folsom, 73, and his nephew John Thompson also came back.

The tornado had picked up their home, twisted the frame and threw the whole thing about 10 feet; the structure landed on top of a gas meter. They lost a lot of stuff, they said, including priceless antique dishes and china.

Thompson was in the park’s shelter at the time, but Folsom rode out the tornado in a bedroom closet. Another roommate got out just before the storm hit.

Thompson and Folsom stayed with one of Thompson’s friends for awhile, but Thompson went to live with his parents in Leon because he had cats. Soon he wearied of driving back and forth to Wichita and moved into a motel about a month before they finally returned to Pinaire.

They had looked at a house to share, but insurance didn’t give them enough to make payments. Insurance provided a down payment on a new mobile home, but most of it went to pay off the home they had lost, they said. They also had to pay all of last year’s property taxes on the old home, Thompson said.

The new home is larger and more expensive than the old one, but they’re making it, Thompson said. He is on disability; Folsom receives Social Security payments and works mornings as a janitor in a downtown apartment building.

Thompson is philosophical about living in a mobile home again.

“Look at it this way: If a tornado hits you head on, it doesn’t matter what you’re in,” he said.

Folsom said they like it at Pinaire and he praised the owner, Trent Hardison, for helping residents after the storm.

“A lot of people didn’t have insurance on their trailers, and he cleaned the lots up for them,” Folsom said.

Hardison, who built the park with his family after they bought the property in 1981, said debris from the storm has been all cleared out. Stunted trees and empty lots remain.

“When the shock happens, they want to get away,” Hardison said of the park’s residents. “It was a pretty good place to live. It was quiet, and they want to come back.”

“We’re all like family,” said Dorris Hale, who manages the park with her husband, Daniel. “If something happens to one of us, it’s like it happens to all of us. It’s always been that way.”

She knows some residents remain worried.

“It really does put people on edge since it happened. We have a bad windstorm, people get a little nervous. That’s natural,” she said.

‘God took care of it’

Adam and Kimberly Cicora did not return to Pinaire. The couple, both 27, live in a rented town house in Derby. It has a storage closet beneath the stairs for shelter, and the Derby Rec Center is nearby.

Last year’s tornado ripped their mobile home from its straps, lifted it into the sky and spun it 360 degrees. They never found the rear quarter of the house or the shed that used to be in the back

Adam Cicora had been at a youth retreat at a home in Mulvane that night. Kimberly, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Curtis Middle School, had taken their 7-month-old son, Jacob, to her brother’s home in Haysville to avoid the storm.

Had his wife and son stayed in the home, Cicora said, they would have died.

No more mobile homes for them, he said.

“Not unless we can have it on a permanent foundation with a basement. And not in a park situation,” he said. “After what we’ve been through, it’s a little too hard to go back.”

They lost 99 percent of their belongings, Cicora said. Renters insurance covered most of the loss. Friends, family, members of their church, Kimberly’s co-workers and students and even total strangers helped. One anonymous donor gave them a large amount of cash, he said.

“Blessings all over the place,” Cicora said.

On the Monday after the storm, the Royal Caribbean call center in Wichita contacted him about an interview. Its general manager had been going through job applications and had seen Cicora’s address on one. Cicora has been working there ever since.

“We’re alive a year later, I’ve got a fantastic job and we’re all in good health,” Cicora said. “God took care of it, and there’s no question about it.”

Nature’s power

Jamie Roads, a 36-year-old single mother, was at her brother’s house in northwest Wichita with her son Jordan, 3, watching the weather, worried about her parents, who lived near her. Before going to bed, she learned the tornado had hit a trailer park in Oaklawn, but she didn’t know which one. The next morning, she learned it was hers.

Like all the park residents, she wasn’t allowed into the area until late the next day, but she saw aerial photos online that showed her house still standing.

The photos were misleading. When she arrived, she found the home mostly destroyed. A section of wall was torn out, and the home had been moved against a tree. The only room still intact was Jordan’s.

She was in shock in some ways.

“I was just awestruck at what nature can do,” she said.

Lots of stuff was ruined, she said, but important things remained, including a small photo of Jordan that had been on a dresser.

“There was a little bit of sadness. But I felt truly blessed to be able to walk in and have as much as I did have,” Roads said.

She stayed at her parents’ house in south Wichita for about a month, then found a home in another mobile home park in a different area of the city. The American Red Cross Midway-Kansas Chapter helped her with the deposit. The chapter also helped pay for replacements for clothing, mattresses and other items lost in the storm.

“Everything happens in life for a reason,” said Roads, who works for a print shop in Wichita. “I was able to look on the bright side of things. I’m very happy. Me and my son have been able to build where I’m at now.”

Living in another mobile home isn’t a worry. Tornadoes are random, she said.

She lived in Haysville when two tornados hit in 1991. The first touched down six blocks away. The second hit two blocks away and destroyed a home where she used to live. It also damaged another house she once lived in.

“It’s just as dangerous to be in a home in Kansas. The main thing is having a shelter and a plan of action,” she said.

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