BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. — Bryan and Cindy Kelley were remodeling their home a year ago and had just hung drywall in the laundry room when everything they were working on was destroyed by a tornado that struck with little warning.
The Kelleys survived in the crawl space below their home, huddling together with their Yorkie, Tinkerbell.
Today they're building a new house. A cross made from the front door of their destroyed home hangs on the wall of their dining room.
"I'm actually less scared of tornadoes than I was before," Bryan Kelley said last week. "We were both just at peace, knowing that God is in control."
On Sunday, April 27, 2014, an EF-2 tornado with winds up to 130 mph caused an estimated $10 million in damage in Baxter Springs, according to the National Weather Service. Fifty-five homes, two senior housing complexes and six businesses were destroyed, including the Baxter Bowl and DNA Performance Cycles. No one was killed in the city of Baxter Springs, but one Baxter Springs resident — John Brown, a 68-year-old a storm spotter — died when a concrete wall toppled onto his car in Quapaw, Okla.
About half of the 218 addresses that were damaged have been repaired or rebuilt, said Jen Smith, the chairwoman of the Baxter Springs Long-Term Recovery Committee.
Few of the homes or businesses that were destroyed have been rebuilt. Smith puts that number at seven or eight.
"There's about 50 properties that there's nothing to repair," Smith said. "It's a vacant lot."
But she calls the recovery, which the city assigned to the volunteer group, largely a success. Volunteers are still working on helping residents make repairs.
"I feel pretty good about it," Smith said. "I'm pretty proud of what happened."
The tornado was on the ground in Baxter Springs for about three minutes, from 5:38 p.m. to 5:41 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. It entered the city on the southwest side near the Santa Fe Burlington Northern railroad tracks and went northeast through the city before crossing Spring River.
"The sun was shining, and all of a sudden it dropped out of the west," said Baxter Springs Mayor Randy Trease. He later got a look at the city in from a helicopter belonging to the Kansas Highway Patrol.
"You could tell a lot of work lay ahead," Trease said. "Everything was all mangled and twisted."
'A direct hit'
Some of the heaviest damage was along Military Avenue, which the tornado crossed from 14th Street to 18th Street. Vacant lots now mark the tornado's path. "The property on Military hasn't moved as quickly as I would like," Trease said. "There are signs on the lots for sale."
A census hasn't been done since the tornado, but Trease thinks the city's population has decreased somewhat. Some people have moved elsewhere in the county. Others have moved out-of-state.
One of the empty lots is what once was a bakery and cafe at 1648 N. Military Ave. called Souper Sweets. Owner Dave Smith said the restaurant had been closed before the tornado, but he was planning to reopen. He didn't have insurance.
"Everything was pretty much gone," said Smith, who has a restaurant in Miami, Okla. "We took a direct hit."
Bob Page Auto Supply, a 61-year-old business in two-story building at 1531 Military that is about a century old, survived.
"What saved the building were the walls were so thick," co-owner Debbie Page said. "They made them to withstand back then."
The city's damage wasn't extensive enough for Baxter Springs to qualify for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the U.S. Small Business Administration issued a disaster declaration that let Cherokee County residents and business owners qualify for low-interest, long-term loans after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback asked for help. He also toured the city.
The SBA approved eight home loans totaling $727,800 in Cherokee County, according to the agency; a business loan for $28,000 was approved for John Krogen Trucking.
Trease said the city also is trying to encourage development with tax breaks and has waived fees for building permits.
For some residents, the recovery has been slow.
Near Military Avenue, Kelly Casillas' home still has a tarp over the roof and there is hole in the wall. Cassillas said she's had trouble getting her insurance company to pay the full cost of the repairs.
"Every single contractor tells us that this is not a safe house," she said.
Jim Camoriano, a spokesman for State Farm, said the insurance company, as a matter of policy, doesn't discuss the details of any claim.
"We continue to work with the customer to resolve differences that arose after the Baxter Springs tornado and desire to reach a mutually agreed outcome," he said.
Larry and Polly Phillips took shelter in their bathroom.
"My wife took me into the tub," Larry said. "I was going to cover her up, but she covered me up. I'll never live that down."
The couple is still making repairs to his home, hanging lights and drywall.
"This is my wife's home," Larry said. "She's a Baxter girl, and she likes Baxter."
Carrin and Timothy Ketchum and their 13-year-old twins, Sarah and Logan, went to the basement.
"All of us praying for God's protection," Carrin Ketchum said. "He protected us."
The Ketchums have mostly repaired their home, a spacious, two-story house built in the 1920s. They replaced the roof, 26 windows and all the siding.
"We still find glass every once in a while even though everything has been fixed and repaired," Ketchum said.
"The city was great throughout all of this," Carrin Ketchum said. "They really gave us the support we needed and made sure we had information. The mayor, the City Council, the Long-Term Recovery Committee. They were fabulous."
The Kelleys are still working on their house. They bought their neighbor's lot next door and are building a bigger house than before with room for Cindy Kelley's Wizard of Oz collection and a basement to shelter in instead of a crawl space.
Cindy Kelley is grateful for the support they received after the tornado from volunteers who helped clean up their property.
"This was such a blessing on so many levels," she said. "Just getting notes and having people saying they were praying for us."
Regarding structures that were destroyed, city calculations hold that seven homes, two senior housing complexes and four businesses in Baxter Springs have been rebuilt.