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Friday, June 14, 2013

Tornadoes wreak havoc on livestock producers

by Mark Mendiola - WLJ Correspondent

The powerful Midwest twisters that ripped through Oklahoma and Kansas in May decimated valuable livestock herds in addition to devastating property and killing dozens of people.

Many ranchers who survived the powerful tornadoes emerged from their cellars and basements to find their cattle and horses dead, badly injured or even vacuumed completely off their acreage by strong winds clocked at more than 200 miles per hour in some extremes.

Veterinarians in the area had to feverishly deal with the aftermath, trying to mend livestock bruised and battered by the strong winds. In many instances, they were forced to shoot horses and cows that could not be saved. It was an overwhelming task for them immediately following the sudden widespread destruction.

Oklahoma was in the bull’s eye of the worst tornadoes, but Kansas and other Midwest states also sustained the wrath of ruthless storm systems that lashed the region with incredible ferocity and velocity, wreaking horrific havoc, terrorizing tens of thousands of people.

The Oklahoma City West Livestock Auction at El Reno, OK, near the tornado’s epicenter, was canceled the week of June 2 because of extensive tornado damage. The cattle stockyard there was reduced to a pile of twisted metal.

“There will be no sale this week as the OKC West sale barn sustained severe damage from the tornado that touch downed on Friday, May 31st. We are unsure at this time when the sale barn will be back up for business, but we will keep you informed as soon as we know,” the auction announced.

Lynn and Bonita Laske, who have lived about 15 miles north of Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport since 1976, say they consider themselves blessed even though their property suffered extensive damage.

No one was killed where they live, and their house remained standing despite roof leaks. The Laskes, like thousands of other Oklahomans, were plunged into the middle of major outbreaks of severe tornadoes within less than two weeks of each other in May.

Several tornadoes touched down in the Oklahoma City area on Sunday, May 19. The next day, a monstrous twister also struck there, almost precisely two years to the day after one of the worst tornadoes in American history devastated Joplin, MO. This Oklahoma twister packed 200 miles per hour (mph) winds and directly struck Moore, OK, killing more than 150 horses when it tore through farm communities.

On Friday, May 31, an even worse, more massive tornado—called a “grinder”—slammed into the same area at only eight mph, slowly cutting a swath a record 2.6 miles wide and unleashing winds that reached nearly 300 mph, shy of the strongest winds ever measured.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said the tornado that hit El Reno that day was an EF5 tornado— the second to strike the area in a matter of days. NWS concluded the storm had winds of 295 mph. Nineteen people died in that storm and subsequent flooding, including three experienced storm chasers.

The May 20 tornado that traveled more than 16 miles also was ranked an EF5, killing 24 people. Moore was hit in 1999 by another EF5, which had the strongest winds ever measured on earth— 302 mph!

The Laskes, neighbors and hired help managed to rush into the safety of a cellar before the May 31 tornado struck their property with a vengeance. When they surfaced after the twister passed, the destruction they saw was unbelievable.

Their barn was totaled, and horses inside it killed. Livestock were gone or badly injured. Eight buildings, trailers, an indoor arena and a mobile home were destroyed. A metal fence was leveled and ripped out of concrete. Hay acreage was ruined.

“Seeing all the terrible damage, people lost everything,” Bonita Laske said, noting many horses died. “We’re not alone. Many others here, too, have lost a lot.

We feel blessed. We have a house. It could have been a lot worse. … Celestial Acres lost close to 100 horses, if not more. The tornado at its height wiped whole barns clean. It’s very tragic. … We’re all traumatized.”

With debris everywhere, machines with magnetic rollers had to run over almost every square foot of land to collect nails, which seemed to be everywhere. “’It was really scary. It’s quite an experience to live through a tornado twice.”

The supportive response of friends, neighbors and even strangers tempered the anguish suffered by those who lost virtually everything they owned, Laske said, commending churches, the Red Cross and Salvation Army for generously sharing food and other necessities.

“I’m telling you when something like this happens, they come to your aid.

You find out who your friends are,” she said, urging people to heed the warnings of meteorologists and not take them nonchalantly. “When it hits home, it really sticks with you. It will probably take years to rebuild.”

Richard Foster, who lives at Blanchard, OK, about 2-1/2 miles south of where the tornadoes started, ships cutting horses and show horses. Two of his horses stored at the Laske ranch were destroyed in the May 31 tornado.

One survived, but it was “really torn up. It has ulcers in the right eye, and all four legs are taped up. They’re all swollen. It has cuts and abrasions all over,” Foster said. “I lost all my tack saddles.”

Noting a roof was ripped off their house, Foster said: “The Laskes lost everything—all barns, all stalls, round pens, all corrals, fencing. Pipe and steel cable was pulled out of the ground. Five horse trailers were destroyed like pieces of toothpick.”

A 32-foot flatbed truck was twisted and bent. A Canadian friend visiting the Laskes lost his truck and horse trailer. “All we found was a door.” All vehicles parked there were destroyed, including motor homes, a car and a pickup truck.

“It took big John Deere tractors in the air and dropped them. It rolled a Massey Ferguson. A manure spreader was okay. One of the small tractors and a dump truck were thrown into the barn. All I-beam steel was twisted like match sticks,” Foster said, noting the tornado then proceeded to wipe out a new subdivision with 4,000-square-foot houses worth up to $400,000 each, leaving only slabs as evidence of where they once stood.

“This is Oklahoma. Hell, you can’t throw a rock without hitting somebody who has horses,” Foster said, estimating some of the horses killed each were worth $30,000 or more.

Not as publicized as the tornadoes that ravaged Oklahoma was a violent twister that ruthlessly hit Kansas with tremendous force.

NWS confirmed that an E-4 tornado with winds up to 200 mph was responsible for killing hundreds of cows in the Minneapolis and Bennington areas of Kansas. It was on the ground for about an hour and was up to three-quarters of a mile in width.

Some of the cows killed were in pastures, and others were at a heavily damaged private feedlot. The Bollier Farm lost 36 cattle. The farm’s two combines, one tractor, three trucks, a baler and air seeder were caked with mud and foliage. Multiple outbuildings were damaged and about 100 power poles were downed, leaving about 1,700 customers without electricity.

“We got hit twice, and I’m ready to call it quits,” said Ron Bollier, who has managed a ranching and feeding operation about six miles southeast of Minneapolis, KS, with his brother Rick. Their parents Clifford and Joann Bollier previously ran it.

Bollier estimates 390 cattle, including 33 yearlings, five bulls, cows and calves, were killed between his operation and three others.

Volunteers on four-wheelers scoured pastures in search of surviving animals. A Nebraska rendering plant disposed of the cattle in a very timely, orderly fashion, he said.

“The cattle were not shut up. They were running on pastures. It basically picked up the cattle,” Bollier said, referring to the tornado. Some were hurled and scattered a mile away. One hundred and seven of them were slammed against steel sucker rod fence. Some were tangled in barbed wire. Others had fiberglass shields shoved through them.

“Anything you can think of in a bad dream, it was in that deal,” Bollier said, noting meteorologists said the storm stopped, backed up and stayed over the area for about 20 minutes. He estimates he lost cattle worth three quarters of a million dollars. Because the bones of so many of the cows were broken, the animals were like “Slinkies” when they were lifted, he said.

His ranch’s watering and electrical systems will need to be replaced. Feed pens and 500 feet of concrete bunks were destroyed. A new hydraulic chute also was damaged. Four hundred round hay bales vanished. About 300 tons of corn silage filled with debris will need to be buried in a pit. Nearly $1 million in machinery was destroyed “We had a nice place. It will probably take a couple hundred thousand dollars to replace it,” Bollier said. “I don’t think there is a straight gate on the place. I suppose there’s probably five miles of fence totally destroyed. Corrals were ripped out. Two miles of light poles were down. Debris is everywhere.”

A wheat field will need to be cleaned before it can be cut. “Whether we start from scratch or not, basically, we’ve got to get ready for the wheat harvest,” Bollier said. “I work like hell just to get up in the morning.” — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent

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