When we took the air June 26 for severe weather coverage on KVOE, there really wasn’t much thought we’d be dealing with any tornadic activity.
Boy, did that change.
Scattered storms developed south of Emporia and slid southeast that evening, developing rapidly enough to cause severe thunderstorm warnings for Greenwood and southern Lyon counties around 7 pm. Once we got rolling with our coverage, though, there was one storm rapidly intensifying near Eureka. Sean Thornton, who was running the board and hails from Eureka, and I immediately started thinking back to July 7, 2016, when the Greenwood County seat was hit by another tornado. We weren’t looking at a repeat, were we?
Unfortunately, we were.
In rapid succession, central Greenwood County went from a severe thunderstorm warning to a tornado warning to confirmation of a tornado on the ground to a radar debris signature. Our hearts just sank.
Further confirmation was rather quick in coming. The 2016 twister hit the town from the northwest, causing some damage near the golf course and then rooting in northwest Eureka as it churned to the southeast near Greenwood County Hospital and Eureka Junior-Senior High School. Based on the storm’s motion, which was almost identical on radar, it appeared likely the tornado damage path would be parallel to the 2016 storm — if not almost directly on top of it. Instead, we came to learn later the tornado formed in southwest Eureka and apparently cut across the path of the parent storm. That’s a rarity to say the least. Now there’s at least some evidence of a second, smaller, satellite tornado touching down around the same time of the original funnel.
Unlike the 2016 storm, this twister impacted downtown Eureka and also slammed into the southern half of the junior-senior high school campus. Unfortunately, there is now a big X on Eureka from the two damage paths, and it’s very close to the school grounds.
I was four when Omaha had its “big one,” so until I covered the Reading tornado I really didn’t have a personal sense of exactly what a tornado can do to a smaller community — even though I’ve seen the damage through our TV screen. It’s a lot different in person. Eureka already had a good jump on the cleanup by the time media was able to tour some of the worst damage areas the following afternoon, but the scope of the disaster — shifted homes, smashed homes, chewed-up tractor trailers, chairs in streets, mangled fencing, buckled bleachers and all those broken tree limbs — well, it gets to you as a reporter…who lives 45 miles away.
The thing (well, one of several things) I can’t imagine is living through a tornado — and in Eureka’s case, getting hit twice in a handful of years. Having talked with several city and county officials, the area had just finished its official 2016 tornado-related efforts about a month before the 2018 storm. Lives that were finally stitched back together were suddenly ripped apart again.
Because of that and because of the unlikelihood of federal reimbursement dollars, the emphasis on — and impact of — the recovery effort has been remarkable. As was the case with the ’16 tornado, volunteers were trying to mobilize before the 2018 tornado had even dissipated. Help from neighboring counties and the state came roaring in as well, so much so that the cleanup effort is well ahead of the 2016 pace and, if nothing else, the foundation for getting back to normal will be in place soon. And having the annual Party in the Park to look forward to probably helped as well through the sense of the familiar and routine that we come to underestimate until it’s blown away.
In the days following the storm, we learned last month’s tornado was at least the fourth to hit the community since National Weather Service records began in 1950. The ones in 2016 and 2018 were, by far, the worst to hit the town.
Thoughts and prayers have gone out to Eureka since the tornado. More importantly, so has action. So often these days, a response stops at thoughts and prayers. Community disasters are an exception, and it’s gratifying to see so many people linking arms to help. I’m also looking forward to returning in a few months and seeing the progress Eureka will make after its second tornado this decade.