May 3, 1999 started out as a day like any other Monday, the beginning of a new work week. At the time, I worked for a medical billing agency, following up on Medicare and Medicaid claims. Whenever they denied a claim due to a billing error, it was my responsibility to get it corrected and resubmitted. It's even less fun than it sounds.
After work, I prepared to drive to Haysville—a suburb of Wichita—to visit Heather, my girlfriend at the time. As I left my apartment I stopped to grab my Frisbee, thinking the weather was nice enough to spend some time outside.
It was about a mile and a half from my apartment to Interstate 135, and about 5 miles south on the Interstate to the Haysville exit. I got my first surprise when I turned on to the ramp to the highway. The sky to the south was nearly black. A report came on the radio speaking of tornadoes in Oklahoma and severe weather in southern Kansas, moving toward the Wichita area. No big deal. We get severe weather every few weeks through the spring and summer. It's a fact of life here in tornado alley. According to the radio, the worst of the storm was approaching Wellington, Kansas, about 30 miles south of Wichita.
As I reached the ramp off the Interstate, I encountered the first of the severe weather. Hailstones began pummelling my Mercury Topaz. But by the time I got off the ramp, I was through the hail and into a light rain. The hail must have been limited to the very edge of the storm.
When I arrived safely at Heather's apartment, she was worried. She said she had called me, hoping to catch me still at home, to warn me not to come because the weather was so severe. She had apparantly called within minutes after I left my apartment, probably about the same time I was getting my first glimpse of the storm clouds.
Heather had her radio tuned to the weather information station, and her television tuned to a local station for full coverage of the storm. People in Wellington were being advised to take cover because a tornado had been spotted on the ground. Heather was expecting the worst.
To ease her worries I got out a map to track the progress of the storm. I hoped she would relax when she saw it was not headed toward us. We watched and listened as the weather trackers followed the storm's path through the small town of Peck toward the Wichita suburbs of Mulvane and Derby. It looked like the tornado would pass about ten miles to the southeast of us. A close call, relatively speaking, but we were in no danger.
But then the storm changed course. On the radio we heard, "Haysville, take cover". I peeked through the venetian blind and was stunned by the pitch blackness of the sky. Judging by the time, I should have seen the last rays of the setting sun. I couldn't even see the houses across the street.
Then I heard the wail of the tornado sirens.
Meanwhile, Heather was busy unplugging the television and turning off all the lights. The last precaution she took was to open the back door, to help equalize the pressure in case of a tornado.
Heather's apartment was a converted garage. She had no basement, and there was really no safe place to take cover. From somewhere in the distant past I recalled something about the southwest corner being the safest side of the house in a tornado, so we huddled on her couch, conveniently located in the southwest corner.
We listened as the storm approached. We heard the winds pick up, and then we heard another sound, a sound like a freight train. The first thought that entered my mind, I kid you not, was, "I can tell everyone at work that it sounded like a tornado." Heather later said that she had heard small objects being thrown into the sides of the apartment. But I couldn't hear much of anything, due to the increasing pressure in my ears. Only then did it occur to me that maybe it actually was a tornado.
I began to pray, "God, keep us safe..." but by the time I got to the word "safe", the tornado was gone. The train noise faded, and the pressure in my ears subsided. Heather later told me she had said the same prayer at the same time.
We cautiously got up and looked out the windows. The tornado had passed, but the storm continued. We surveyed the area as lightning flashes illuminated the neighborhood. During one flash, I spotted a tree branch lying on the ground, about 20 feet from the apartment. I pointed it out to Heather the next time the sky lit up. As far as I knew, that was the worst of the damage. I would soon learn just how wrong I was.
What happened next is hard to understand. The phone rang. Heather picked it up and said "Hello?" but there was no one on the other end. Or, rather, there was someone, but they were calling another party. The phone kept ringing on that end. Finally, the other person picked up the phone. The woman who had made the call said, "You've got to get over here quickly. Half the side of our house is gone."
Only then did I realize that this storm might have done some serious damage. Before the phone call, I had been consoling myself with the belief that the tornado probably hadn't even touched down. But now I was filled with a morbid curiosity to see just how close we were to its path.
When the lightning storm finally died down, we went outside to survey the damage. We walked up and down the block with our flashlights. Most of the neighbors were doing the same thing. And we got our first glimpse of the other side of the street.
There was not a house on the west side of the street that did not have a hole in its roof. Down at the other end of the block there were two houses with no roofs at all, and one house missing both the roof and the front wall. And an oak tree had been uprooted out of one of the neighbor's yards and thrown into the street. Heather lived on a cul-de-sac, and the oak blocked our only exit.
The smell of gas was in the air. One of the main gas lines had been severed, and the entire town was without gas. For that matter, it was without electricity, phone service (despite the call Heather had received), and running water. Heather and I planned to go back to my apartment for the rest of the night, since there was nothing more we could do until morning, and it wasn't particularly safe to stay. But we couldn't leave until the city crew had removed the tree from the road.
While we waited, Heather's neighbors across the street gave us a tour through their back yard. They had had about a half dozen trees in their yard, but every single one had been uprooted.
Heather's apartment, and both of our cars, suffered no damage.
By midnight, road crews had gotten the tree out of the road, and we were able to leave. When we reached my apartment, I had six messages on my answering machine. My parents had been trying to call. Even though it was now nearly 1:00 in the morning, I called back. Mom answered the phone right away. My parents didn't seem the least bit upset about my calling at that hour.
After spending a nearly sleepless night in my apartment, we returned to Haysville Tuesday morning. For the first time, we saw the damage in the light of day. Every house on her block had been damaged, except Heather's apartment. Debris was scattered through everyone's yards. A metal beam had been dropped in Heather's landlady's yard. It had a light switch attached near the center. We have no idea which building it might have come from.
But when we walked one block to the west, we saw a whole new level of destruction. Not a house on the street was left standing. There were walls and there were roofs, but they were not connected to each other. There was nothing even vaguely resembling a complete building.
I had planned to take my camera down to Haysville to get some pictures of the damage, but I heard on the news that the cleanup and utilities crews were being hampered by sightseers. Out of respect I decided to leave the camera at home. But I will always carry in my mind the images of that day.
I saw blocks of concrete laid out in a rectangle—once the foundation of a house. The rest of the house was gone.
I saw a complete roof lying on the ground. It did not match any of the surrounding buildings, or what remained of them.
I saw oak trees lifted out of the ground, holes two and three feet deep where the roots had been.
I saw an burned-out RV turned on its side. All that remained was a blackened frame.
I saw a house with virtually no damage—except for a two-by-four stuck cleanly through the wall, like a large nail partially driven into a block of wood.
I saw a community building with two walls missing. Against the emptiness that used to be a wall was a row of chairs, undamaged.
I saw a tree pulled out of the ground, and undamaged flowers next to the hole.
And I saw a garage only a block from Heather's apartment, missing the roof and one wall. Another of the walls was pushed inward, almost to the point of collapse. Debris was scattered all over the floor. The southwest corner of the building—the same corner where we had huddled for safety one block away—had been ripped apart by the force of the wind.