EUREKA — Sirens blared late Tuesday evening as Carson Marlar relaxed on his front porch with friends.
Unconcerned, the trio prepared to drive around to look for the storm. Instead, Marlar found himself forced to the ground in his kitchen by a powerful wind that tore a northern wall off his home in the 400 block of Maple Street, he said.
Shortly after noon Wednesday, he stood on the porch and surveyed the damage from a powerful EF3 tornado that cut a path of destruction through the town of about 3,500 people in the southern Flint Hills. Eureka is about 115 miles south of Topeka and 60 miles east of Wichita.
Officials estimated about 70 homes were damaged, including 10 that had been completely destroyed and about 15 that were uninhabitable. Including outbuildings and other damage, more than 150 total buildings sustained damage. At least eight people, including two whose condition was critical, were injured in the storm, according to the Kansas Adjutant General's Office. No one was killed.
The National Weather Service in Wichita said the tornado quickly developed on the western fringes of Eureka shortly after 7 p.m. and was on the ground for about seven minutes. It touched down in the city about 7:18 p.m. and was off the ground by 7:25 p.m. With peak winds of 152 mph, the twister traveled just over 2 miles and had a maximum width of 250 yards, the weather service said.
It was the second tornado to hit the town in nearly two years, and the seventh to damage the community since 1950. In July 2016, an EF-2 twister damaged nearly 100 homes.
“What do you do? You pick up and move on,” Marlar told The Topeka Capital-Journal on Wednesday.
Marlar, 40, had ducked into his bedroom to grab a few things before heading to the basement. The force of the storm broke windows and his front door. As he struggled to reach the basement door, the wind knocked him to the floor.
“I made it into my kitchen entrance, and it was just like I was pushed down to the floor,” he said as he described seeing the wall torn away from the house. “My friend Toby was right there getting ready to go to the basement, and I didn’t see him no more. I thought he got sucked out.”
Marlar, who grew up in Eureka, was still a bit shaken as he walked around his yard Wednesday. Inside the house, sunlight shone through the roof, which was mostly gone. Dirt, broken glass, crumbling drywall and other debris littered the floor.
Marlar anticipated staying with friends or family, but for those with nowhere else to go, the American Red Cross established a shelter at the Methodist Church, 521 N. Main St. Shelter captain Alvin Anderson said about a dozen people had sought assistance at the church. Many others had stopped by to cool off or to charge cellphones, he said.
The American Red Cross asked that anyone affected by the tornado register at their Safe and Well website or call 1-800-RED CROSS. The website can also be used to check on family members in the affected area.
The tornado moved from southwest to the northeast, ripping up trees, blowing down homes and mangling power poles. At Eureka Junior/Senior High School, 815 N. Jefferson St., on the northeast side of town, damage was extensive. The storm chewed up a red scoreboard for the Eureka Tornadoes. The “home” side of the board was bent around the back of billboard and walls of a grandstand, dubbed “Tornado Alley,” were caved in.
Two blocks from Marlar’s home, Michael Hays leaned against a tree. The storm ripped off shingles, broke a few windows and destroyed a garage at the house on the corner of 4th and St. Nicholas streets.
When the storm struck, Hays said, he was watching weather radar as his stepdaughter ran through the house “screaming” that a tornado had touched down. By the time he reached the basement, it was over, he said.
“Yeah,” he said with a deep breath. “I’d consider us pretty lucky.”
At the community center, Hollie Tapley, volunteer coordinator with Great Plains United Methodist Disaster Response, attempted to wrangle a flood of volunteers pouring in from across Kansas. Nearly 100 of them had signed in through the organization, but the total number of volunteers couldn’t be estimated, she said.
“It’s always chaos in the beginning,” said Tapley, a Topeka resident who travels across Kansas and Nebraska assisting with disaster relief.
With several thousand Westar Energy customers without power in Greenwood County, crews spent most of Wednesday replacing utility poles and cleaning up downed power lines. A large section of the city, from Mulberry Street east to Jefferson Street and from River Street north to 7th Street, was blocked off even to some residents as crews worked on power lines.
Large numbers of volunteers wouldn’t be allowed into the area until the downed lines were removed. Efforts on Wednesday largely centered on cleanup, Tapley said.
Topeka Fire Chief Craig Duke said on Twitter that training chief Kevin Flory and Fire Marshal Michael Martin went to Eureka as part of a state incident management team to help the residents and other first responders. Agencies from several counties, including Johnson, Wabaunsee, Coffey and Lyon counties, also assisted. Kansas Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli was also at the incident command center in Eureka.
Residents and officials Wednesday repeatedly compared the destruction of Tuesday's tornado with that of a 2016 twister that tore a path in the opposite direction through the northern part of town. This year’s storm was far more destructive, city manager Ian Martell said.
He pointed to a map of the tornado's path and circled an area near the high school that saw destruction during both storms.
“Those residents got a double-whammy, so they’re discouraged. It’s tough,” he said, adding he expected the city would pull together to help those in need. “That’s the Kansas spirit, I think.”