Hesston marks 28 years since tornado


Jason Reynolds was off work from his job as manager of the Hesston Pizza Hut on March 13, 1990 but when he looked up in the sky and saw the winds moving in the opposite direction of the clouds, he went ahead and went in to the restaurant. 

Through Pizza Hut management school, Reynolds had some severe weather training in his back pocket. That, and a whole lot of faith.

“It was like a really strong wind, the whistling, we could hear windows crashing in the dining room, so we knew we were getting a direct hit. The walls were rumbling as that came through,” Reynolds told KSN.

He and his staff escorted customers into walk-in freezers for protection. He remembers holding the door to keep it from flying open.

“I was in the bathroom praying. I didn’t care who heard me praying, just praying that we’d be safe and make it through and we all did,” Reynolds said.

Fitting enough, Reynolds now serves Harvey County Sheriff’s Office and Newton Police Department as a chaplain. But back in 1990, he used his job as Pizza Hut manager to serve the Hesston community in its time of need, using his store to feed the community in the weeks of storm aftermath.

It’s that giving, selfless spirit and resiliency that made the rebuilding process as quick as it was.

“That’s kind of the nature of this community. It’s a strong Mennonite community and the philosophy in that particular church is to help your neighbor and the Mennonite Disaster Service moved in quickly after the event and started clearing debris and tearing down homes that were destroyed. And I would say within two weeks, other than there were notable empty lots that weren’t there before, you couldn’t have told there was a disaster two weeks prior,” Hesston Fire/EMS chief Russ Buller said 

Buller remembers tracking the storm that day, noting that it first touched down southwest of Hutchinson near Pretty Prairie. He’s thankful they had lots of lead-in time to get the warning out to residents to take shelter. Residents heeded the warning.

“It was lined up to strike our Hesston College, our nursing home Schowalter Villa, and then our trailer park it was in a direct path to hit all three of those which I daresay I guess there would be significant injury and loss of life that would have occurred,” Buller said.

Instead, the storm took a turn to the north and hit more of Hesston’s commercial and residential area. Buller and company transported 18 people with injuries from Hesston, but no fatalities took place in the town. 

Two people did die in the storm, one in Burrton and one in Goessel. 

Buller reports some changes to the town’s emergency siren system and command structure since the storm. 

“We enhanced the tornado siren network in the community. We had a strong one then but one of the downfalls we discovered that same evening, we had a second round of tornadoes near Hesston and we attempted to activate our sirens a second time only to find with all the power out, they had no battery backup,” Buller said.

Their system now is supported by backup power.

Another challenge? Fielding an outpouring of support.

“We had a huge number of volunteers that wanted to help and we hadn’t experienced that before to that scale,” Buller said.

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