Strong to severe storms in parts of northeastern Kansas were expected to continue Wednesday after a “large and extremely dangerous” tornado carved a path of destruction through the area Tuesday night, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a “tornado emergency” for several counties and the heavily populated Kansas City metropolitan area.
No fatalities have been reported, but at least 15 people suffered storm-related injuries — three of which were considered serious, according to the Douglas County Office of Emergency Management on Wednesday.
More than 3,000 buildings still lacked power Wednesday morning, according to an outage map operated by Westar Energy.
While the full extent of the tornado damage remains unclear, photos and videos from affected areas show what has been described as “catastrophic” scenes. The tornado is the latest product of a pattern of severe weather that has ravaged the central United States in recent days, devastating parts of Oklahoma, Ohio and Missouri.
In Lawrence, Kan., homes, garages and barns were ripped apart. Power lines were down, trees blocked some roads and debris littered the area Wednesday morning as emergency services crews surveyed the destruction. The state Division of Emergency Management urged residents to avoid damaged areas and assume any fallen power line is live.
On Tuesday evening, the Weather Service warned that storms, which could possibly produce “a few tornadoes,” hail and winds greater than 60 mph, were developing near the Topeka, Kan., area. Kansas is experiencing one of its wettest months in history, and flooding has led to Gov. Laura Kelly (D) declaring a state of disaster in 49 of 105 counties, the Wichita Eagle reported.
Shortly after 6 p.m. local time, the Weather Service confirmed that a tornado had touched down southwest of Lawrence and was moving toward Kansas City, Kan. It was expected to pass near the popular Legends Outlets Kansas City shopping area near the state border, located close to the Kansas Speedway. Later Tuesday night, the Weather Service also placed counties in western Missouri under a tornado warning after at least one tornado was reported on the ground.
“This is a DANGEROUS situation!” the Weather Service tweeted, warning people that the Kansas tornado “will be rain-wrapped so it will be hard to see.”
Less than 30 minutes after the initial alert, the tornado warning in effect was upgraded to an “emergency.” A “damaging tornado” and possible “golf ball sized” hail was reported. The Weather Service described the situation as “life threatening” and estimated that more than 200,000 people, 84 schools and a hospital could be affected.
Local media reported that the Weather Service instructed meteorologists to “Use the strongest language you have ever used to get people out of the way of this storm.” The National Weather Service in Kansas City tweeted around 6:34 p.m. local time: “This is a tornado EMERGENCY! If you live in these areas take shelter now! If you are driving pull over to a sturdy building and take shelter now! If you are at work, stay there and take shelter now! Best shelter is lowest level in the most interior room!”
There were multiple reports of debris “falling from the sky” as the tornado continued to track toward more densely populated areas, and the Weather Service urgently advised people to take shelter.
Kansas City International Airport, located less than 30 miles from the speedway, temporarily closed and guided customers to parking garage tunnels for shelter. Almost three dozen flights were canceled, according to the Star.
The airport tweeted at 12:15 a.m. local time that it had reopened. No cars in the parking lots appeared to be damaged, the airport said.
“We apologize for the inconvenience," the airport tweeted. "A tornado destroyed homes and businesses miles away & debris rained down onto the airport. Our crews had to clean it up in order to be safe.”
Debris picked up on the airfield that caused our Operations staff to close the airport because Foreign Object Damage to aircraft can cause catastrophe. Pots, foam, wall panels, plant ID tags over millions of square feet. Presumed from tornado damage 47 miles away in Linwood, KS. pic.twitter.com/oOhYTs7F6H— Kansas City International Airport (@KCIAirport) May 29, 2019
On Facebook, the speedway wrote that the tornado “missed the track, but it has impacted the communities near us. Please keep those affected in your thoughts tonight."
One such community was Linwood, Kan., a small city located less than 40 minutes southwest of Kansas City.
Brian Hahn, a Linwood resident, told KMBC that he and his family heeded the warnings, and hunkered in their basement under a mattress as the tornado approached. Hahn said he heard the telltale rumble, followed by a change in the air pressure.
“The next thing I know, I could hear it was over us,” he said. “I saw my bedroom just leave, it was gone. We were underneath the one part of the house that didn’t get taken.”
In images of the tornado’s aftermath, the ground was covered in piles of rubble, felled trees and power poles, and overturned cars.
When Hahn emerged, the sight that greeted him was equally grim. Beyond the destruction to his home, he told KMBC that two silos and his livestock were nowhere to be found.
“I feel lucky I’m alive,” he said.
As Mark Duffin stood outside the remnants of his home near Linwood, he told the Star he was “overwhelmed,” but grateful his family and pets survived.
“I had a plan for years, we’ve lived here a long time,” Duffin said. “Followed the plan and . . . made it out alive.”
About a half-hour after the tornado tore through the Linwood area, dozens of first responders were continuing to arrive on scene with chain saws, ATVs and other rescue equipment.
Over in Douglas County, which includes Lawrence, search-and-rescue efforts were also ongoing, despite being slowed by darkness and thunderstorms, Bob Newton, a spokesman for the county’s emergency management service, told The Washington Post late Tuesday.
“Even though it didn’t go through any major city in our county, . . . there were suburban neighborhoods just outside of Lawrence that were hit,” Newton said, adding that the damage to homes was “significant.”
Lawrence Memorial Hospital received 12 people with injuries from the tornado, hospital spokeswoman Janice Early told the Star.
The American Red Cross opened a shelter at the Douglas County Fairgrounds on Tuesday evening for people and pets displaced by the storm.
Less than an hour after the Weather Service reported that the tornado had lifted Tuesday night, Kelly, the Kansas governor, announced that President Trump had granted her request for an emergency federal disaster declaration. The assistance would go to 18 counties in the state affected by severe weather, heavy rains and flooding, a news release said.
“I’m pleased the president granted these counties emergency support,” Kelly said in the release. “Sadly, with additional devastating storms hitting several communities tonight, this may only be the beginning of the support Kansas needs.”
Matthew Cappucci contributed reporting from Linwood, Kan.
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