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Survivors, witnesses look back 30 years to Andover tornado

Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 7:46 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Thirty years ago Monday, April 26, a massive F-5 tornado devastated Andover. Lives were lost, homes were uprooted and families were torn apart. April 26, 1991 was a day that the town of then about 4,000 people changed forever.

On Monday, Eyewitness News spoke with people who witnessed the massive tornado, as well as survivors who had to take shelter from the storm.

“All the weather casters had said ‘the conditions are right,’ remembers Les Mangus who was Andover’s City Superintendent in 1991. Mangus remembers standing at the stove in his kitchen, frying chicken for his children when he heard on the news that a tornado was coming across Haysville, heading toward McConnell Air Force Base in southeast Wichita.

Karlene Lovelady was 16 years old on April 21, 1991, a Friday night that her date to go to a concert at Wichita State University was canceled. Her dad, who she said, “has always been a weather bug,” told her to stay home.

“And so he said to me after I got home from school, ‘you’re not going to be able to go out, there’s bad weather coming,’” Lovelady remembers. “And I said, ‘It’s not like a tornado is going to hit Andover, dad.’”

No one expected what materialized from the storm.

Mangus said “everything was right for tornadoes,” but the size and scope of what hit was staggering. The tornado sustained winds of more than 250 miles per hour and stretched more than 600 yards. It was on the ground for more than an hour and covered about 46 miles.

In the effort to stay on top of the storm and save lives, now retired Eyewitness News meteorologist Merril Teller tracked the tornado’s path, issuing immediate warnings as it threatened and hit part of the Wichita metro area. The radar was primitive to the technology available today, but the warnings were critical in keeping the death and injury count from exceeding what it did.

When the radar went down at a critical point when the tornado was approaching southeast Wichita and Andover, Teller was able to keep up with what was happening, thanks in large part to storm spotters in the field. He said the public also contributed to the coverage.

Some of the most stunning tornado footage ever recorded at that time was captured by Duke Evans outside Terradyne Country Club in east Wichita.

“They were saying it was a huge tornado. And so I just started filming it,” Evans said “...I’m really glad I took it because it did really help the weather department.”

On Monday, Teller sat down with Michael Scwhanke to reflect on the unforgettable night 30 years ago. You can see the full interview with Teller below.

When it was over, the death count reached 17 and the property damage was extensive with millions of dollars worth of rebuilding ahead.

Riding out the storm, then 10-year-old Tricia Lee remembers seeing the tornado, looking outside a window.

“I don’t think it will ever escape my mind,” she said. “It was so black. I just remember, it was just so black. It wasn’t like what you saw on TV or in the movies.”

Evan’s memorable footage showed the tornado sweep up debris as it tore through Andover. When it was over, Mangus remembers a scene that resembled a landfill with so much debris strung about.

“You were standing in Hell, basically,” Lovelady said.

Lee said the tornado devastated her community, but it also brought it together.

“You really just saw people pulling together, people helping each other out with no expectations in the end,” she said.

In the end, she said, the tragedy ultimately brought more life to the community. Today, with a population of near 14,000 people, Andover is prospering as one of the most affluent Wichita suburbs.

Today, Andover is known for having a solid school system with two high schools, having desired housing additions and a strong business community. On April 26, 1991, it across the country and beyond, it was a small town that was hurting from a devastating force.

“The world saw Andover for the first time in 1991,” Mangus said.

A united spirit and determination to rebuild paid off for Andover.

“it’s been a real building boom ever since 1991,” Mangus said. “We’ve done the right things, all of the right infrastructure to build a city of 14,000 people today and prepared to grow even more in the future.”

The 1991 tornado was crippling, but the town rallied together to create the hope which the community thrives on today.

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