Chapman Tornado Recovery
By Cecilia Harris
On June 11, 2008, a half-mile wide F-4 tornado swept through the community of Chapman, destroying or damaging dozens of homes, several businesses, churches, the school district’s administration offices and all three school buildings. Despite the devastation, the very next day Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman, in charge of emergency services, reflected the optimism of the community of around 1,400 people when he stated: “We’ve still got half the town intact.”
The tornado resulted in loss of life and property, a number of people injured, and financial difficulties for many residents. “There’s always a great deal of pain that occurs in tragedy,” said City Attorney Doug Thompson, adding that residents were brought closer together and made stronger through the shared crises, developing a city-wide unity. Thompson became the official spokesperson who addressed the stunned residents in the days that followed the tornado.
“I told them at the time ‘Look, we’re not the first community that has ever been hit by one of these and we’re not going to be the last one, but what will happen is that as years go by others will judge how you handle this situation,’” he said, proudly adding, “I think they handled the situation very well.”
Current Chapman Mayor Phil Weishaar, who was on the city council at the time of the twister, recalled the resilience of the residents when the catastrophe struck and complimented the efforts of emergency management teams on all levels who provided assistance.
“The first couple of weeks were pretty typical with feelings of shock,” Weishaar said. “But that quickly turned into ‘let’s roll up our sleeves and get going.’”
Not long after the dust – or in this case the debris - settled, thousands of volunteers from throughout Kansas and beyond began arriving offering to help. As the cleanup efforts got underway, Weishaar said he heard few complaints.
“It really motivated everybody to get things cleaned up,” he said. “It was an enthusiastic period of time. Everybody knew that everybody was working and there was nobody sitting back moaning and groaning.”
Weishaar has a tremendous admiration for the volunteers, many of whom returned time and time again to do dirty work.
“It’s not the kind of thing most people would want to do, they were on their hands and knees cleaning yards up. It was impressive. I have an overwhelming appreciation for the spirit of the people of Kansas. Speaking on the behalf of everybody in Chapman, we really appreciate it.”
As the mundane task of cleanup continued, residents began making decisions about whether to stay in the community and rebuild or to move elsewhere. Weishaar said most chose to stay.
“I don’t think there was ever a period when there was a large feeling of ‘this is overwhelming and we can’t do it’ or anything like that. There were a few individuals that did move, but they ended up selling their property or their lots and somebody else ended up doing something with it.”
He said 57 houses had to be knocked down because they were unsafe or beyond repair.
“Obviously our valuation went down that next year a little bit, but within a year it was back up and was even higher than it was before and that’s the key in any recovery (after a tornado), you have to get a sufficient number of buildings back up there so you have that total valuation for your tax base. That was one of the bright points of everything.”
Another bright moment was the selection of the Patrick Tutwiler family to be featured on ABC television’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Tutwiler, an injured Iraqi war veteran, and his family were left homeless by the tornado. A whirlwind of activity struck Chapman with the arrival of the television crew and thousands of volunteers to build a new house for the Tutwilers. Other homeowners in the city also received assistance with rebuilding efforts and a community center that serves as a tornado shelter was constructed as part of the episode’s makeover. Thompson said the television show “put Chapman in the spotlight” nationally and sparked new enthusiasm within the community to continue rebuilding efforts.
A major key to the town’s survival was the construction of the school district’s new Education Center and elementary, middle and high school buildings. Thompson said the school district is the “strength” of the community and the biggest employer. If the school board would have decided to downsize or relocate, he admitted it might have had an adverse effect on the community with the possible reduction of the district’s students and the town’s population.
“But the school district announced immediately they were going to rebuild, they would recover,” he said. “And ultimately there were new schools and an administration center built so that went forward.”
School and city officials worked together to expedite the construction of the new schools, which opened in January of 2011 and were funded with monies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the district’s insurance, and an $8.2 million bond issue approved by the district’s voters. Despite the devastating tornado, school began on time in August in mobile classrooms provided by FEMA.
Weishaar agreed the rebuilding of the schools obviously kept the reconstruction momentum going, motivating others to continue with their own individual efforts.
“It was kind of a contagious feeling in a lot of ways,” he said, adding that reconstruction brings the opportunity for improvement. The new elementary school was built on land annexed by the city and a new street constructed, bringing the prospect of new businesses in the area in the years to come.
“In some ways we’re still in the recovery mode,” Weishaar said. “Even though we’re four years out, planning and building sometimes takes a long time. We think things are bright for the future.”