Twister!

“That was the longest minute-and-a-half of my life,” said Kansas trapper, predator caller and call-maker Kent Constable as he took his first look at the remains of his home and trapping shed following an EF2 (enhanced Fujita Scale) tornado that hit rural Ottawa County, Kan., late in the evening of May 5.

Kentsshopbefore_opt.jpgAs we walked across Constable’s debris-strewn lawn, tears welled in Kent’s eyes as they fell upon his pride and joy — a tediously maintained pickup he’d bought from his dad several years ago — lying on its driver’s side atop what was left of his trapping shed, shop and garage.

The reliable wood-burning stove that had warmed Constable while he repaired traps, worked bobcat and coyote hides, and hand-crafted predator calls in the shop he proudly called his “Man Room” lay pinned beneath the driver’s side of the truck bed. All that remained was a concrete slab surrounded torn plywood, drywall and insulation, with yellow and white electrical wires snaking through the rubble.

We’d only been there a few minutes, but it was obvious our work was cut out for us as we struggled to identify where we would start with our salvage efforts.

Wicked Weather Weekend
Constable wasn’t alone in his troubles that weekend. A night earlier, on Friday, May 4, a violent outbreak of thunderstorms erupted into tornadic supercells from southwest Kansas to eastern Nebraska, including a three-quarter-mile-wide EF5 wedge tornado — the first of its kind — that destroyed 95 percent of rural Greensburg, Kan., and killed 12 people. Witnesses said the tornado ground through town for more than 8 minutes. It was one of 30 confirmed tornadoes that night.

The next night, when the Constables found themselves looking down both barrels of an enraged Mother Nature, nearly 90 tornadoes were reported, with 83 separate twisters confirmed. Along Cabin Row, the housing development where Kent lives with his wife, Tami, and sons, Kenedy, 4, and Lawson, 8, nearly 30 homes were damaged or destroyed along a narrow path as a twister ripped down the road, whipping from one side to the other as it ate roofs, trees and entire buildings.

When the winds finally settled, an elderly woman who had taken refuge in a motor home being used for shelter while her house was being renovated, had died. Six others were injured.

Scrambling for Cover
Fortunately, because of Kent’s quick thinking, the Constables weren’t among the injured.

Prior to the storm, Kent and his sons were watching a movie in the living room of the couple’s two-bedroom, slab-built home. Tami was in nearby Tescott, Kan., helping with prom. Thunder rolled and winds buffeted the house as the storm intensified. That’s when Kent heard it — the roar of the train. It was getting closer.

With only a moment to react, he pushed Lawson behind a sofa. He grabbed Kenedy, who was asleep, and shoved his limp body into the cramped space behind the sofa with his brother. Then, Kent threw himself on top of the boys.

No sooner were they wedged between the wall and the back of the sofa when the windows exploded, sending shards of glass flying across the room. The force of the wind whipping through the house lifted a heavy area rug and draped it over them — a detail that would later cause them to ponder the possibility of divine intervention.

Kent and his sons were shaken, but otherwise unharmed. The rug, however, was ruined by glass fragments, as was much of the furniture, clothes and personal belongings.

Returning to Ruins
The next morning dawned cool and damp. With a steely sky threatening rain, friends and neighbors of those evacuated from Cabin Row gathered at a nearby lake. Law enforcement and fire department personnel huddled wearily around a mobile command center, warming themselves over cups of steaming coffee.

State troopers blocked the ends of the road, preventing sightseers and residents from entering before authorities deemed it safe.

I drove up the road behind Kent and Tami, passing house after house missing portions of the roof. Personal belongings littered lawns, mixed with branches and cottony pink fiberglass insulation hanging from tree limbs and downed power lines.

On the sides of the road, tree branches were piled haphazardly where rescuers had dragged them as they worked toward the most seriously damaged homes.

Upon reaching Kent’s driveway, we were overcome with a sense of wonderment.

Kent climbed slowly from the family sport utility vehicle as his eyes slowly took in the scene. In the total darkness of the night before, lit only occasionally by random flashes of lightning, it looked bad.

In daylight, it looked far worse.

Tami stayed in her seat, both hands to her face as tears filled her eyes. Their home sat before them, its windows gone, the west end exposed where the roof had been ripped from over the kitchen and the boys’ bedroom.

Next to what had been a brand new front door, a large orange “3X” had been spray painted by rescuers as they searched for victims.

Trying to find some sort of silver lining, I put an arm around Kent’s shoulder and reminded him that he’d saved his kids’ lives, everyone was OK, and when all was said and done, his wife would be getting a beautiful new kitchen. It didn’t seem to help.

A row of tall cedars that had shaded the driveway to Kent’s garage had been uprooted and piled atop the bare concrete slab — the floor of his shop.

All around us, mixed with gravel, mud and rubbish, lay hundreds of empty rifle brass, bullets, reloading equipment, pictures of past hunts and the antlers Kent uses to make hand-carved custom predator calls. Green paint cascaded down one side of the concrete slab, directing our gaze to tangled piles of decoys — ducks, geese, and “other.”

Fate of the Family Pets
“Look at my truck!”

Kent’s voice faltered as he clenched a fist to his chin and walked toward this pickup. Two steps closer, he stopped. As if the thought just struck him, he remembered he had an important job to do: find his dog — dead or alive.

Somewhere behind his house, there had been chain-link fence panels housing the family’s yellow lab, Nash. Kent had resigned himself that Nash was a casualty of the storm — a thought affirmed when we found a pile of cedar branches and debris where Nash’s house used to be. It was hard to imagine anything could have survived.

Determined, Kent pulled branches and boards from the pile in search of his buddy.

Soon after, Kent excitedly called out, “Nash! C’mere boy! C’mere!”

Amidst the destruction, Nash crept slowly from beneath the rubbish, looking sheepishly around. He was covered with mud and shivering cold, wet and fright, but no worse for wear. For the first time that morning, we all smiled.

Nash was a much-needed glimmer of hope.

Our feelings were reinforced when, to our amazement, we found both of the boys’ pet rabbits — gifts from the Easter bunny — unharmed in their crumpled wire cages beneath branches and debris.

The shop had been obliterated, the house irreparably damaged and a full-sized truck lifted into the air and set down on its side, yet none of the Constables or their animals suffered more than a few scratches.

Miraculous.

Sorting and Salvaging
During the next few hours, friends, family and church members gathered to collect clothes and personal belongings. Pictures and photo albums were uncovered and carried carefully to the shelter of pickup toppers and plastic bags. Truckload after truckload was driven to nearby h omes, where friends began washing clothes and laying their lives out to dry.

Twice that day, we scurried for shelter in an empty hull of a house as gun-metal blue clouds gathered to the south, sending sharp bolts of lightning around us. As we huddled in what was left of the house, we each wondered silently to ourselves about the odds that the events of the previous night could happen again. Thankfully, the clouds did not spawn another tornado.

When the rain stopped, we returned to our salvage work. We walked slowly amidst the debris, searching beneath each board and in every nook and cranny for remnants of Kent’s predator call collection. We managed to find some calls, but not all of them. We felt lucky with each new discovery, but it was like taking part in an Easter egg hunt from hell.

Inside the house, furniture had been rearranged by the intense force of the winds. Drapes hung in shreds from broken frames surrounding gaping holes where windows used to be. The floors were wet, and broken glass crunched beneath our boots with each step. Out of habit, we caught ourselves wiping our boots each time we walked through the door and reaching out to flip on a now-dead light switch, then laughing uncomfortably at the irony of doing so.

In one corner, near a computer table, a few waterlogged school papers and a book bag lay strewn across the floor. One particular paper caught my eye, with the words “Tornado Safety” printed in large type across the top. It was Lawson’s homework, due the next day.

Lawson later expressed concern about not being able to turn the papers in on time. Kent assured him he would likely get an “A”, regardless. He had earned it.

Over hot pizza and cold sodas during one rain delay, Kent showed us a piece of masonite siding that had been blown through a front window and embedded in the living room wall after skipping across and leaving a gouge in the ceiling. He didn’t know of any house with siding like that on Cabin Row.

With the furniture and appliances loaded and removed, the clothes bagged and sent to friends for laundering, and Kent’s traps, stretchers and hunting gear piled in boxes and bags, a long day wound to an end.

We looked around, realizing we wouldn’t get it all done in one day, as much as we would have liked to. Between overburdened insurance agents and backlogged contractors, the Constables knew rebuilding would take time.

Rebirth of a Homestead
Kent’s garage and trapping shed have been rebuilt on the same slab as was the first one. Aside from a nice awning on the north side, beneath which Kent undoubtedly looks forward to spending many lazy fall evenings, there is no difference between it and its predecessor. The markings on the floor showing where the original wall studs were placed were still there, and were used this time as a guide for new walls.

10Homman4_opt.jpgTodd Griffin, owner of Pike Creek Guide Service, has graciously allowed Kent and his family to stay in the lodge used for hunting clients. Colleagues and competitors have chipped in time and manpower to keep Kent caught up at work. Donations from friends in the hunting and call-making community have been added to their insurance benefits and were very much welcomed while they struggled to replace items insurance didn’t cover.

“We’re amazed at the outpouring of compassion and how much we have seen God’s hand in this — from holding my boys on that floor while glass and furniture moved around them to his outpouring of sending compassionate folks our way,” Tami said.

The boys were shaken by the storm. Lawson, because he was awake for the entire ordeal. And Kenedy, because he wasn’t. He feels somewhat cheated of the opportunity.

The sudden unexpected chaos and darkness with water pouring into the house all around them, plus the image of flashlights reflecting off their father’s bloodied back and legs are memories that remain with both boys. They aren’t likely to forget anytime soon.

Kent expects a basement contractor to arrive on site and begin digging a hole where just a slab previously sat. The family will never be without a basement again.

After that, he’ll muster the kind of self-sufficiency only a trapper knows as he undertakes the daunting task of rebuilding the family’s home by himself, gaining an extra bedroom, bathroom and a new kitchen for Tami. With luck, when trapping and hunting seasons open this fall, the Constables will be moved into their new home.

“We’d outgrown the old house,” said Tami with a wry smile as she refinished a piece of furniture that had been damaged in the storm. “This is all turning out for the better. But there have to be better ways to get a new home.”

Lance Homman, a personal friend of the Constable family, is a field editor for T&PC.

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