Deer Lakes Estates did not see the worst of the tornado that ripped through Southeast Wichita Saturday night, but it was one of many neighborhoods that saw the best in those who led the cleanup effort.
Located just northeast of the Oaklawn area, the few streets running though Deer Lakes Estates are lined with the remnants of homes and trees taken down by the EF-3 tornado. In a strange way, it looks orderly.
A dawn to dusk rally of volunteerism helped this area do what it could to pick up the pieces Sunday. Family helping family, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping anyone in need.
“Some older people were hand-cutting with hand tools. They had a lot of trees down so we took the chainsaws over there and went to town. He appreciated it - 'What do I owe you?' 'Nothing, just trying to help',” said Charles Leiker of Ron's Sign Company, who was allowed to pass through police road blocks when he shared his intentions with officers.
Leiker and his co-workers finished clearing away debris from another colleague's house in the early afternoon but continued down the line assisting others in need.
“We have the ability, we have the manpower and we have the tools. It's just the thing to do. And I think that's the way everybody should be in my opinion,” he added.
That sentiment is shared by a group of former Marines and other ex-military members commanding a unique relief effort in the wake of the Kansas storms. Howard “Ford” Sypher and his group of Team Rubicon volunteers tore through fallen trees with chainsaws in effort to stay true to their cause – reacting to natural disasters and humanitarian crisis domestically and around the world.
“We tracked the storm as it came into Wichita and saw the winds as they started gusting up to 207 mph and we positioned a survey team here to assess the damage and bring in a follow-up team,” said Sypher, who credits Team Rubicon with being able to adapt to chaotic situations.
Sypher's survey team will lead to further Team Rubicon presence in Wichita over the coming weeks, one of many disaster relief groups converging on the Southeast side.
“What they went through is very traumatic and this is all part of the healing process,” Sypher says. “As people emerge from their storm shelters they realize forever their lives will be changed. Not only because of the event but also because of property damage.”
That damage may prove too great for some homes in the area, like the one belonging to Tim Fortine, who has a creekside tree in his back yard currently laying in his kitchen. Fortine, who has found excitement in chasing tornadoes in the past, says one finally chased him.
“After I heard the sirens going off, I was checking the radar last-minute and took the kids to the storm shelter. I stepped outside and as soon as the trees started toppling, I headed downstairs really quick,” he said with a choked smile. “It was crazy. It sounded like a freight train coming through. All of our ears were popping.”
Fortine will await formal word from his insurance company if the house, which also has branches forced through the ceiling of the master bedroom, is beyond repair. In the meantime, he keeps a positive attitude.
“All my friends are hanging jokes on me for having a big old treehouse now.”
Fortine's is one of many horrific stories in the area, but at least he did have his family safely within a storm shelter. Others did not enjoy such a circumstance.
17-year old Randy Holman spent time between dealing with debris to gather stories from around the neighborhood. He tells of one neighbor who may have been attempting to drive away from the area in a Mustang but didn't get very far.
“The car got blown right out of the garage and all the way across the street, but it's perfectly fine. Maybe some parts of a tree blown on top of it but it's fine,” he says.
Holman's family doesn't have to go far for a reminder of the force behind the storm that passed directly overhead while they huddled together in a storm shelter. Next door, a trailer home is standing on its side.
“Before this was just a nice, tranquil place. And now it looks like a big disaster zone... But there are two trees behind the house that held it in place so it couldn't keep on rolling into the other properties behind it,” said Holman.
Work will continue into the week at Deer Lakes Estates, as its residents remain constantly reminded of the stories the storm produced, and the details of those stories which could have been so much worse.
In all, the current estimate for damage in Wichita is estimated at 283 million dollars.