Kansas Recovers from Tornado

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on April 21, 2002

Spirits were high on April 21, 2001, as the town prepared for prom night. The weatherman had forecast severe thunderstorms, but no one was expecting anything more than heavy rain when powerful winds knocked out electricity and silenced the town’s warning sirens.

When the lights went out in the Knights of Columbus hall, students attending the prom scrambled to the basement. Several blocks away, Mayor Gwen Christy grabbed her battery-powered radio and headed downstairs with her husband, Ivan, and dog Katie. “It developed quickly, and when it hit, it was over,” Christy recalls.

The powerful tornado, packing winds in excess of 200 mph, leveled about one-third of Hoisington, Kan., (pop. 2,975) shortly after 9:15 p.m., destroying the Dairy Queen, bowling alley, and grocery store, causing major damage to Hoisington High School and Clara Barton Hospital, and destroying or damaging more than 550 homes. Dozens were injured, and one man died.

But with faith in God, hope for the future, and help from compassionate volunteers, townspeople pulled together and are working hard to rebuild the place they call home.

“There is such a gratification to see the town pull through,” says Allen Dinkel, city manager. “As a community, we feel a great sense of accomplishment.”

One year after the twister wreaked havoc, hundreds of new—and repaired—homes grace the town, the Dairy Queen has reopened, and the grocery store will soon be back in business.

“You have to look at the positives that came out of this,” says Randy Deutsch, manager of Town and Country Food Market. “There are new homes and businesses better than ever.” The grocery store is 6,000 square feet larger.

More than the convenience of having the grocery store and other businesses and homes rebuilt, their resurrection is a symbol of the town’s strength. “People in this town have always been resilient and determined to take care of things,” Christy says.

This isn’t the first time Hoisington has survived a tornado. Residents also rebuilt after another twister destroyed a large part of the town Oct. 8, 1919.

The day after last year’s tornado, Dinkel and Christy organized a community prayer service. “The whole community was drawn together,” Dinkel says. “That was a turning point. It set the tone and started the healing process.”

By focusing on their faith, townspeople had the courage and stamina to face the hardships ahead. “Faith got us through this,” says Leon Steiner, Dairy Queen manager.

Hope kept them persevering. Mayor Gwen Christy handed out hugs while repeating, “Hoisington will make it.”

“Gwen was the mother of the town,” Dinkel says. “She was comforting.”

While she reassured residents, Dinkel, whose home was severely damaged, kept a 24-hour vigil from his office.

Residents are still talking about the charity offered by volunteers. Immediately after the storm, townspeople and out-of-towners swept into the area with as much energy as the tornado to clean up the mangled mess.

Groups from as far as Uniontown, Kan., 260 miles to the east, sent volunteers to clean yards, board up windows and doors, and sort through the rubble. They arrived with shovels, rakes, hammers, gloves, plywood, chainsaws, and a lot of muscle. “Nobody wanted anything for doing the work either,” Steiner says.

“Without the help of volunteers, we wouldn’t have got through it,” Deutsch says. “We owe people so much.”

Deutsch’s 72-year-old mother, Dolores, owner of the store, also lost her home and two vehicles. “We sifted through rubble for two weeks at the store and my home,” she recalls.

Since the prom was interrupted, students in nearby Great Bend started a “pennies for prom” drive, which raised $2,400. On May 5, they organized another prom for Hoisington students.

“The kids had spent two weeks digging Hoisington out of the rubble,” says Mike Nulton, Hoisington High School principal. “The prom gave them a much needed reprieve from the tragedy. We won’t let a tornado stand in our way.”