Rebuilding a community after a direct hit from a tornado is not easy. In 1990, an F5 tornado wiped out hundreds of houses, businesses and iconic landmarks in Hesston, Kansas.
But Hesston bounced back fast and the small community north of Wichita today looks back on that dark day with some happy memories. KMUW’s Deborah Shaar shares the story.
"If you can imagine...where we are standing right now...if you look to the west, southwest, that’s the path that it took and pretty much came right over where we are standing," Hesston EMS Director Russ Buller says.
Buller walks along a small block of Main Street in downtown. This was ground zero for the F5 tornado that roared into this Harvey County town on March 13, 1990. Buller was a volunteer firefighter at the time. As the weather reports came in, he activated the emergency sirens and then jumped in his car and tracked the tornado as it headed toward town.
"It sat there for a period, and at some given moment, I don’t know how long it was after we first found it, it took off and really picked up speed," Buller says. "We had to do some fancy driving to get out of its way at that point."
Buller watched the devastation as it happened, and then he became a first responder.
"We pulled in right behind it as it went through town...and we started searching for victims and trying to assist," Buller says.
Buller has been retelling this story a lot lately, as Hesston marks the 25th anniversary of the tornado disaster. He says it was the early warnings that saved lives.
No one died from the tornado in Hesston, but sixty people suffered injuries. The destruction was widespread and random. Hundreds of homes and businesses were in the tornado’s path, many of them in the heart of the city.
"The lumber yard is one block west, and that’s where their retail center was, and it was totally destroyed," Buller says. "These two businesses across the street were totally destroyed. These houses to the east on Weaver, the one you see directly at the end of Reusser here, was the house that was partially destroyed and then had a fire in the basement that pretty much totaled the house at that point."
What we see now in these places are rebuilt businesses, homes and lives. While it wasn’t easy, the clean-up and rebuilding process was quick because Buller says the community pulled together.
"Literally the next day, there were volunteers with trucks and high-loaders and backhoes in town, and they were beginning the clean-up process," Buller says. "The majority of the clean-up was done within the first two or three days after the event.
Buller and others say the strength of the community makes this town of about 4,000 proud. The city’s only Pizza Hut is an example of the extraordinary comeback. Just days after taking a direct hit, a mobile kitchen was in place…serving free pizza to volunteers and displaced residents. At the same time, the new restaurant was going up. Jason Reynolds was the manager.
"At the time, it was the fastest Pizza Hut ever built," Reynolds says. "We were able to complete that building in three weeks. People in the community said that was kind of their sign of hope, that things were getting back to normal.
At 20 years old, Reynolds was barely older than the high school students who were working the dinner rush that night. His quick thinking saved lives.
"So we took as many customers and staff that I could get into the walk-in refrigerator and put everybody in there," Reynolds says. "We ran out of room, so I took the majority of my staff and a couple of other customers with me, and we rode out the storm in the men’s bathroom. It was pretty scary, and I was praying pretty hard."
He never made it to the dinner date he had planned for that night.
"I had never seen the tornado actually, because we were dealing with shutting the store down and getting everybody to safety," Reynolds says. "So I didn’t get a chance to see the tornado and I had no idea how large it was until I watched the news that night and saw the footage. That’s when it kept me up all night."
Hesston’s “new normal” in the years after the tornado was one of growth. Census records show the city’s population steadily increased in the past two decades. The city’s main industries, agricultural-based manufacturing, have expanded and grown. And the city invested in public projects and infrastructure improvements.
One of the challenges for the city today is preserving the history of the tornado.
"I didn’t want to lose some of those personal stories," Libby Albers says.
Albers is the director of the Hesston Public Library. She and her team have spent the past year digitizing original photos, handwritten letters and artifacts related to the tornado and they are far from done.
"If you take a look at some of these pictures, you can see the Pizza Hut afterwards," Albers says. "And it’s so strange to see it shirred off there and yet the cardboard boxes, just lightweight flimsy boxes, still standing."
One story from one picture and there are hundreds of them left to go through. Albers finds a photo showing a damaged house with a special message on it.
"And here it is sprayed painted across 'Do Not Flatten Yet.' So this has information on it 'Don’t knock this down. We’re getting stuff out of it.' But just to have that little snapshot of this small fraction in time. Just fascinating," Albers says.
Albers is going through six hefty photo albums, the kind with faux leather bindings and magnetic plastic sleeves that was popular back in the ‘90s. The library has been flooded with pictures and scrapbooks from the public. All are on loan so the staff can scan and upload to the library’s special online collection.
"(After 25 years) enough healing had happened that folks were willing to come in and talk and visit," Albers says. "The stories have just poured out. It has been amazing what we have heard and what we have found."
Beyond the physical memorabilia, they are cataloging. The library also recorded oral histories, to hear first-hand, the personal memories of those who lived through the tornado.
"Yes, we can read an article about an anniversary or read about a particular event, but when you then step back and know about one particular family’s experience, that’s where the event itself becomes real," Albers says. "And that’s what I wanted to get a hold of and be able to then pass on and make it real for the next generation.
Last month, students at Hesston College created a two-mile walking trail of the tornado’s path. Hundreds of little orange flags decorated with a tornado picture were dotted along neighborhood streets, parks and commercial areas. Albers says as people walked the trail, they shared memories and new observations.
"You might have a string of very big mature oaks in a residential area that then all of the sudden dips down and there are much younger oaks. So you can still physically see that," she says.
At the Harvey County Sheriff’s office, Jason Reynolds’ current job is director of support services, and he serves as the law enforcement chaplain. His experience with the tornado is a valuable lesson for the crisis calls he now handles. He says the county is prepared to face another F5 tornado, yet there’s always a heightened sense of urgency during bad weather.
"When we have tornado warnings go out, or severe thunderstorms in the area, it’s not one of those things we ignore," Reynolds says. "It’s one of those things we take very seriously."
Russ Buller continued his career in the city of Hesston’s emergency services department during the 25 years since the tornado. He’s been the EMS director since 1996.
"Time is a great healer," Buller says. "We certainly did grow as a community and prosper as a community…some might say partially because of the tornado."
Hesston was defined by the tornado over the years because it was one of the first major tornadoes to be widely documented through video recordings, photographs, and TV coverage.
The people of Hesston have not forgotten. They have a deep respect for the terrible history that they lived through and an appreciation for the community that helped each other rebuild.