Weather News

‘In shock by the destruction’: Daylight reveals devastation of tornado near Lawrence

The morning after a massive rain-wrapped tornado tore through northeast Kansas, friends, coworkers and strangers banded together to help pick up the pieces.

The daylight Wednesday morning revealed just how much devastation was done by the tornado that ripped through the south side of the Lawrence area Tuesday night.

Hundred-year-old trees were uprooted, street signs were knocked over and the powerlines that weren’t toppled were tilted. It was nearly impossible to know the origin of the debris scattered across fields and in trees and ponds.

Homeowner Robin Jacobsen noted that even the grass was all pointed in the same direction.

The tornado that arrived southwest of Lawrence, spun its way to Linwood and then into the Kansas City metro area turned out to be an EF-4 with 170 mph winds, according to the National Weather Service. No one was killed.

In Douglas County, about 17 people were injured, three of them hospitalized, according to Douglas County Sheriff Kenneth McGovern. About 46 homes suffered heavy damage there. It was unclear how many people were displaced, the sheriff said. Building 21 on the Douglas County Fairgrounds was open as a shelter, and the American Red Cross and Salvation Army sent teams to Lawrence.

In Linwood, a town of fewer than 400 people, the tornado wiped out houses and buildings, including the popular Free State Growers greenhouse. Stunned residents there lamented the destruction but gave thanks no one appeared to be badly hurt.

Fifty structures were affected, 19 of them destroyed, according to James Fricke, spokesman for Leavenworth County Emergency Management. Three people had minor injuries.

In Lawrence, the tornado’s path was easy to see. Just point from one damaged home to a demolished barn or shed down the road.

It seemed no house escaped impact from the storm in the small neighborhood Jacobsen lives in with her husband Terry. The couple was out of town during the storm and drove back once they heard what happened.

Terry Jacobsen’s mother, Alice Woellner, and his son and future daughter-in-law were at the house.

“I was kind of in shock by the destruction,” Woellner said.

She said she had no indication from her position in the basement store room that the tornado had done so much damage. No one in the neighborhood was injured, but sheds and garages were torn out across the neighborhood and cars were destroyed. One family lost most of their roof and the sun room off their top floor.

The home of Mike and Karen Labonte was completely destroyed. Their shed had blown away and the house itself had entirely collapsed, according to Ryan Edwards, a longtime friend of the couple. They had lived in the house for about 20 years and will likely rebuild.

“They’re jokesters so they’re laughing about it,” Edwards said.

Edwards mentioned one thing that did survive the storm: the Labonte’s race car, which they compete with in Mayetta, Kansas.

Meanwhile, debris still cluttered the roads in the neighborhoods south of Lawrence along U.S. 56, which was one of the hardest-hit areas. Large trees were uprooted, blocking some parts of 1400 Road, and powerlines were down throughout the morning.

Rick Kuhl, 61, drove in to the area Wednesday morning to help his friends, whose home on 1000 Road had partially collapsed. He picked up trash and debris that littered the lawn.

He was not alone. A group of about 20 friends and family gathered on the property to help load the possessions into a truck.

After seeing the tornado’s path, Kuhl knew his friends were affected. He grew concerned when he texted them and there was no response.

Once the tornado warning in Lawrence was lifted, Kuhl drove in the dark to check in on his friends. They survived by hiding under their basement staircase — which has since collapsed.

The tornado was one of two associated with severe storms that moved across the Kansas City metro area. The second tornado touched down southeast of Kearney in Clay County and moved into the village of Excelsior Estates.

The second tornado was determined to be an EF-2 tornado with estimated peak wind speeds of 115, according to a survey team with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill. The tornado was on the ground for 5.8 miles and had a maximum width of 400 yards.

Back in Lawrence, Ruth Barkley, drove into a hard-hit neighborhood about 7:30 a.m. to help her friend Carol Lanoue clean up the debris along her house on 1000 Road.

“You hope these terrible situations bring out the best in people,” Barkley said, “and they do.”

Rather than focusing on their own home first, the Lanoues started their day by helping their neighbors patch up their home and clean up the debris.

“That shows you the kind of people they are,” Barkley said.

Deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, state troopers and Lawrence police blocked off 1400 Road, south of Lawrence, about 10 a.m. so crews for Westar Energy could repair damaged power lines.

Residents of another neighborhood on the southeast edge of Lawrence were assessing the damage Wednesday morning, trying to determine how much they could clean up before insurance agents came out to make official assessments.

Although the houses are spaced out, neighbors walked along the road to check in on each other.

Much of the land in this area was once owned by Larry Saathoff’s grandfather. He sold the land off bit by bit for his retirement. Saathoff’s mother, Judy, now owns the house, woodshop and barn on 6 acres of the original 160-acre farm. The stone house was nearly untouched, aside from a tree on the roof and some shingles damaged.

The barn and Saathoff’s grandfather’s workshop, however, were demolished. Saathofff said the farm used to be the Douglas County poor farm. What remains of the barn is covered in graffiti that Saathoff said is leftover from fraternity and sorority parties thrown in it in the 1970s.

He said he spent much of his time growing up on the property with his grandfather.

“The time and day that was built you won’t ever rebuild something like that,” Saathoff said.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.