Riding out the ‘86 storm

The Allen County Historical Society's presentation on the windstorm of 1986 prompted several area residents to share their memories of the event.

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May 18, 2022 - 3:26 PM

The audience watches a short video of damage from the 1986 storm at the Allen County Historical Society’s spring meeting on Tuesday. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

It takes a little more than a massive windstorm to keep people away from a Friday night seafood buffet.

Gena Clounch was working as a waitress at The Greenery restaurant on Aug. 1, 1986, when the storm hit.

Dubbed an “inland hurricane,” the storm was actually a macroburst and caused extensive damage across a wide swath of Southeast Kansas.

Clouch elicited laughs as she remembered the stormy night. She recalled how some patrons left the restaurant as the storm threatened, but others remained.

“The storm was going. Water was rushing down the hallway. Lights were flickering,” she said. “People just kept eating.”

Bob Hawk, a retired meteorologist, also spoke about the storm at the Allen County Historical Society’s spring meeting on Tuesday evening.

After his presentation, which included a short video, several attendees shared their experiences.

Hawk said he and his wife were hosting Japanese exchange students on Aug. 1, 1986, and decided to head to the Lake of the Ozarks for the weekend. Before leaving town, he had to run a couple of errands. He stopped at the TG&Y store and noticed the sky was black.

He thought: “Oh, we are going to get it.” 

The storm hit as he was driving home, at around 5:15.

“It was ferocious. It was all I could see to drive. I told my family to get away from the windows.”

The storm had started somewhere around Lyon County near Emporia and moved south to Crawford County near Pittsburg and southwest Missouri, with straight-line winds of around 90 mph.

This storm quickly became known to locals as an “inland hurricane” but that’s not really accurate, Hawk said. 

The family of David and Phyllis Loomis escaped injury when their station wagon was crushed by the stadium roof, which was blown off during a macroburst on Aug. 1, 1986. Register file photo

Hurricanes typically have winds of at least 75 mph but are located over an ocean. 

A microburst is a downdraft of a thunderstorm covering an area smaller than 2.5 miles in diameter.

A macroburst is a downdraft at a much larger scale.

This was a macroburst, Hawk said.

Hawk compared it to a watering can. Most of the time, water leaves the can in a steady stream or a trickle, but if the lid falls off, all the water hits at once. 

Coffey County reported hail of 3.5 inches in diameter.

Allen County was one of the worst hit, particularly the Gas, LaHarpe and Moran areas.

Power was knocked out in about a quarter of the county.  Thousands of acres of soybeans and corn were obliterated. Homes and businesses were heavily damaged.

The north wall was blown in at  the skating rink near Gas — now the Microtronics business.

This photo from 1986 shows the remains of the steeple of the St. John’s Catholic Church, which fell onto the bride’s car as a couple was getting married.Register file photo

Semi-trailers were blown over. A 10,000 gallon grain bin buckled. Train cars were derailed south of Moran. 

A fifth-wheel RV ended up in a swimming pool at the home of Sterling and Pauline Bagby, former movie theater owners.

At Iola’s St. John’s Catholic Church, the steeple fell onto the bride’s car as a couple, Nancy and John Ellington, prepared to be married. They exchanged vows by candlelight. 

Most dramatically, though, came the story of David and Phyllis Loomis and their three children, who were trapped in a station wagon when they parked near the stadium at Riverside Park, and the roof was blown on top of their vehicle.

Davis Loomis spoke about the experience. His story is included below.

Retired meteorologist Bob Hawk talks about the storm at the Allen County Historical Society meeting on Tuesday.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

THE NEXT day, the National Guard was called to help with cleanup. They hauled away 300 loads of debris.

Coffey and Allen counties were declared disaster areas.

Iola businesses had planned a downtown sidewalk sale on Saturday. That continued, Hawk said.

He showed a video compiled by Jim Strahle, which starts with a view of downtown and the activity at the sidewalk sale before showing various areas surrounding Iola that were damaged, including the skating rink.

Jim Tholen looks through Iola Register newspapers from August of 1986, at the Allen County Historical Society’s spring meeting. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

FOLLOWING are recaps of the stories shared: 

Donna Houser

Houser was at the airport in Wichita when she heard the news about the storm, and the loss of the roof at the football stadium. Over the past seven years, Houser has raised money for repairs to the stadium and the question she hears most often is, “Why don’t you replace that roof?” She responds by pointing out that press boxes have been built since then, and a new roof would be much too tall and costly. 

Gary McIntosh

McIntosh and his wife were out of town at an awards ceremony for their son, a football player. Their daughter was home alone when the storm hit and “the largest tree in town” fell clear through their ceiling to the bottom floor of a large, two-story house on South Washington Street. All of the contractors were busy with the cleanup, but McIntosh finally found someone who built bridges for a living and  was able to remove the tree.

Lisse Regher

“I saw this through the eyes of a 6-year-old,” Regher told the audience.

Her mother was driving her and her two siblings home from the swimming pool when they heard about the storm on the radio. As soon as they got home, her mother “threw us all in the bathroom” and then stepped outside to fetch the dogs. At the time, Regher’s father was serving in South Korea and she worried for her mother’s safety, and what would happen to the children if they were left alone.

“The big thing that sticks with me is the fear. For a little 6-year-old, it was pretty traumatic,” she said.

But the thing she remembers most was after the storm, hearing the cows at Strickler’s Dairy.

“I remember they would not shut up. They were so freaked out. They cried for days.”

Annette Ratliff

Ratliff had just ended her shift at JCPenney and walked home to South Colburn Street.

She was headed east, and oblivious to the storm behind her until she reached the front door. 

“I turned around and looked. I had two young trees in my front yard and they were bent over by the wind and touching in the middle,” she said. “They’re still touching to this day.”

Judy Brigham

Brigham and a friend were at the Plaza in Kansas City when they saw dark clouds  in the distance.

She thought: “Somebody’s getting a storm.”

This was years before cell phones could instantly alert someone to such things, so Brigham was unaware of what had happened until she returned home later that night. 

The power had gone out, so there were no lights to guide her. She pulled up to her house and discovered the wind had blown away the garage door — and everything inside.

“What I remember is the dark and not having any connection to anybody, and not knowing what had happened. But things didn’t look right.”

Donna Houser listens as David Loomis talks about his family’s experience.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

David Loomis

The Loomis family was at the park for son Matt’s baseball game when a police officer came by to warn about the impending storm. The wind quickly picked up, and the parking lot at the time was gravel. The gravel and dust soon covered the car, a Country Squire station wagon, so Loomis thought it would be dangerous to drive and sought somewhere safe to park and wait for the storm to pass.

He saw a red truck parked just to the south of the stadium and thought it looked like a safe spot. He told the kids to get down; farm experience had taught him of the dangers of tin flying off roofs.

“My wife said, ‘Here it comes.’ I didn’t know it was going to be the entire roof.”

No one was injured in either vehicle, but the roof of the station wagon was smashed and the car itself was pushed to the ground. The family was reluctant to exit the vehicle because of downed electrical wires.

Soon, they heard people talking. Eventually, someone saw their vehicle and assured them it was safe to exit. They crawled through broken windows.

It took a few days before city crews were able to get the car out “but you could still drive it.”

Loomis joked that though it wasn’t exactly a safe spot, he’d parked in just the right place. Steel beams that could have completely crushed the car fell just in front and behind it.

“We were in the right place at the wrong time.”

Jim Tholen

Tholen was working when the storm hit, so he wasn’t home with his wife and four children. 

A large tree fell on the when the storm hit, so he wasn’t home with his wife and four children. 

     A large tree fell on the house. His wife, Vickie, brought the children downstairs and told them to pray. Somehow, the tree was lifted off the house as the storm continued.

“That was our miracle tree,” he said.

Don Bain

Former Iola school superintendent Don Bain spoke to clarify questions about the stadium roof. Someone in the audience asked why it wasn’t covered by insurance, and who was responsible for maintaining the stadium at the time. 

Bain said the school district used the stadium for years, but it was originally owned by the city. 

“We couldn’t spend district funds on somebody else’s property,” he explained. “We couldn’t even paint the stadium. We couldn’t do anything to it.”

Years later, the city sold the stadium to the district for $1. Since then, it has had numerous improvements including a new track, improved restrooms and press boxes and other renovations. Much of those improvements were made possible by donations.

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