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Months After A Tornado Tore Up Linwood, Kansas, Residents Find Different Paths Forward

Six weeks after the tornado, Dena Duffin and her son Kobee didn't know how much of their salvaged belongings would be ruined when they moved.
Six weeks after the tornado, Dena Duffin and her son Kobee didn't know how much of their salvaged belongings would be ruined when they moved.

Dena Duffin, 53, pulls her teenage son close as she looks into the trailer stuffed with tables, tubs of housewares and whatever else they were able to salvage when the tornado ripped their home off its foundation the night of May 28.

“I gave that to my dad,” she says, pointing to a dented copper tub. “And there’s a stepstool and shelf my dad made for us. You can’t replace those kinds of things.”

Clothes, furniture and appliances will be replaced when the Duffins leave this rural corner at Highway 32 and 206th Street just outside of the tiny town of Linwood, Kansas. They've already found a house in Lawrence.

The tornado was on the ground for more than 30 minutes and cut a swath of damage a mile wide, according to the National Weather Service.  Miraculously, no one died and there were only a handful of minor injuries. The tornado went around the few blocks of homes in downtown Linwood, almost certainly saving lives. 

Only a handful of people in the surrounding area who lost everything have decided to pack up and move. But most will stay and start over, underscoring the tight-knit fabric of this hamlet of 400, about 30 miles west of Kansas City.

It wasn't easy for Mark and Dena Duffin to make the decision to leave.

But the view from the bare patch of dirt where their house once stood reflects the impact of the 170-mile winds that touched down a little after 6 p.m. in Douglas County.

Dena, Kobee and Mark Duffin decided it was too much to rebuild.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
Dena, Kobee and Mark Duffin decided it was too much to rebuild.

Trees are stripped bare of branches and leaves, standing like wooden cactus on the horizon. Dotting the countryside are collapsed homes missing roofs and walls, exposing daylight between their front and back doors. There are pieces of furniture, knick-knacks and maimed artwork tossed randomly inside homes where windows and walls are gone.

Homes directly in the line of the tornado were outside the town center. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
Homes directly in the line of the tornado were outside the town center. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured.

About 40 or so homes were left uninhabitable. Many more had structural damage, most of which have been repaired.

For Mark Duffin, 48, the tornado was the latest of a series of disapointments. Two weeks after the storm, his wife’s aging mother passed away. She lived just across the gravel road. Developers have bought up adjacent property to the Duffin's home and plan to develop it.

"There wasn’t one moment (we decided to leave) but we realized everything we liked about the place was changing,” Duffin says.

The hardest thing for 13-year-old Kobee was losing his fish tank, his toad, turtle, and especially his crawdad.

“Of course the fish died. I don’t know about the toad. But I had a crawdad. He was blue,” Kobe explained. “I’m never gonna find another blue crawdad again because they’re one in two million.”

He did find his turtle a few days later.

“On her back, just kind of chillin,” he beamed. “Like, what the heck?”

Committed to staying

Just across Highway 32 from downtown Linwood is Free State Growers, a wholesale nursery that sells houseplants and tropicals to big box stores, independent nurseries and grocery stores across the Midwest.

Mark Illausky decided right away he would rebuild his nursery in Linwood.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
Mark Illausky decided right away he would rebuild his nursery in Linwood.

Today, the 10 acres is a demolition site. Several excavators are scooping up massive piles of aluminum, glass and other debris from the 11 buildings destroyed by the storm.

35-year-old Mark Illausky bought Free State Growers 10 years ago. Dark blond in horn-rimmed glasses and a faded blue polo shirt, he surveys the disaster site with remarkable calm. In spite of the still incalculable losses, on which he declines to speculate, he says his priority is keeping on his 35 workers and rebuilding to decrease the company’s energy footprint.

“We use an awful lot of natural gas here,” he says, “but we recycle everything and make a big effort to be environmentally conscious. We’ll improve on that and become even more green.”

The starter plants propagated from bits pulled from rubble give Illausky hope.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
The starter plants propagated from bits pulled from rubble give Illausky hope.

There is one greenhouse at the edge of the property that survived the disaster. Inside, rows and rows of tiny starter plants blanket the floor: Schefflera, Croton and succulents. They were all propagated from shreds of plants – tens of thousands of them – hand picked from the rubble.

Surveying the site lifts Illausky’s spirit.

“It’s really hard to walk into a greenhouse full of plants and not feel good,” he says. "We’re looking at young plants. All these are going to turn into more mature plants and as our greenhouses start getting rebuilt, there all going to fill up.”

His goal is to have chrysanthemums by fall and poinsettias by Christmastime.

Challenges for the city

People here still come back to the miracle that Linwood wasn’t wiped off the map last May.

Mayor Brian Christenson hopes Linwood isn't forgotten by FEMA.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR 89.3
Mayor Brian Christenson hopes Linwood isn't forgotten by FEMA.

Mayor Brian Christenson, who owns Red Line towing service as his day job, is grateful for the groups of volunteers who gathered on Highway 32 the day after the storm with chain saws and machinery, ready to help clear debris. A month out, people were still sending cleaning supplies, cases of water and work gloves now stored in the community center adjacent to City Hall.

But top of mind for the mayor is getting debris cleared out of the city's sewage lagoons. Officials are still waiting to hear from FEMA if, and if so when, federal funds may come through.

Christenson also knows Linwood was lucky. But he recognizes the storm's damages may exacerbate its economic struggles.

While some disaster sites see a boom from builders and repairmen eating and shopping while they're in town, that won't be happening here.

“All we have is a gas station and a cabinet shop," he says. "There is no silver lining for Linwood.”

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @laurazig or by email at lauraz@kcur.org.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3