March 13, 1990.
It started out like a normal spring morning, but it's a day members of the Hesston community still haven't forgotten. It was the day an F5 tornado ripped through the small community in northern Harvey County. Although the tornado caused an estimated $25 million in damage across the county, community members still count their blessings that damage was not worse. It also marked how Midwest communities pull together in times of disaster.
"We were just very, very fortunate," said John Waltner, current Harvey County administrator. "It really points to how connected people are at times like that."
According to the National Weather Service, the tornado formed in Reno County and entered Harvey County near Burrton. The tornado grew rapidly in strength, eventually damaging more than 200 homes and businesses.
Waltner remembers driving into town that day after work, spotting the tornado as it was coming through town, along with flying debris. It's a memory that remains vivid.
"As we got closer to town, it was clear this cloud, this huge storm was approaching Hesston at exactly the same pace, the same way we were," he said. "... It was absolutely an awesome sight."
Michelle Ruebke also has vivid memories of the event. Pregnant at the time, she had just picked up one of her children from ballet class in Newton and was driving back to Hesston. She said she saw the storm but figured it couldn't be a tornado. However, soon the sirens went off. Since she didn't have a basement, she ran to her sister's house. She remembers singing "Jesus Loves Me" to keep the children calm as the tornado passed through.
"It does sound like a freight train coming through," she said.
The tornado changed course before it struck Hesston College and a mobile home park; if it hadn't, the devastation likely would have been greater, Waltner said. People also were given good warning about the tornado and were able to take shelter.
As a midwife, Ruebke grabbed her medical equipment as soon as the tornado had passed to see if she could help others. She ended up giving her supply of birth oxygen to firefighters.
In the aftermath, the community quickly came together to rebuild. Hundreds of volunteers helped with clean up, businesses donated equipment, and organizations like Mennonite Disaster Service, the Salvation Army and church groups lent a hand. Sen. Bob Dole helped secure a $2 million grant to the city.
The tornado did claim the lives of two people, one in Burrton and one near Goessel.