The first half of 2007 has been one to forget for many Kansans as blizzards, deadly tornadoes and now flooding have caused millions of dollars in damage, disrupted lives and put a dent in the state’s economy.
Of the state’s 105 counties, only three _ Marion, Atchison and Jefferson _ have escaped being designated a disaster area by local, state or federal officials this year.
“We are beginning to wonder what has brought Kansas to the focal point” of severe storms, said Sharon Watson, director of public affairs for Kansas Emergency Management. “We have certainly gotten every type of storm you can have, with the exception of hurricane, and we hope we don’t have one of those.”
State officials are still tallying the damage from last week’s floods, which affected 20 counties in southeast Kansas. So far, emergency management personnel have identified about 3,100 homes destroyed or heavily damaged in five counties, with a dollar figure to be determined later.
Winter storms that crippled western Kansas earlier this year and a rash of spring tornadoes, including one that largely destroyed Greensburg, have caused more than $1 billion in damage already, with the state spending at least half that for recovery efforts.
Much of the damage has occurred in rural areas, which have struggled in recent years because of drought and other economic obstacles.
Insurance companies are fielding claims for hundreds of millions of dollars, money that temporarily boosts local economies with the rebuilding of homes and the replacement of lost furniture and other property.
But that doesn’t make up for the original damage.
“Any time wealth is destroyed, we’re all poorer,” said Art Hall, director of the University of Kansas’ Center for Applied Economics.
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said on Friday she may call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session to pass a relief package for those affected by the floods. They crafted a similar bill for Greensburg residents.
The question is whether Kansas has any money left to cover the region’s needs.
The ice storms and blinding snow of December and January caused an estimated $360 million in damage to roads, power lines and telephone poles, the costliest natural disaster in state history. President Bush later designated 44 counties as part of a major disaster area.
Five months later, on May 4, a swarm of tornadoes struck the state’s midsection, including a 1.7-mile-wide monster than killed 10 people in Kiowa County and destroyed or damaged almost 1,000 homes in Greensburg. Three other people died in twisters the same day or the next day.
Insurance companies said the tornado in Greensburg caused more than $150 million in insured losses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration have set aside $42.5 million to help those affected by the storms.
“Those two storms (the winter storms and tornadoes) alone have left an unprecedented mark on the state in terms of damage and destruction,” Watson said.
The state then got a heavy dose of rain, bringing floods to central Kansas in May and southeast Kansas in late June and early July. The high water in Coffeyville was made even worse by the release of thousands of gallons of crude oil from a refinery on the Verdigris River.
“All I can tell you is that I have my staff very busy researching the length of a cubit,” said Randy Duncan, emergency management director for Sedgwick County, referring to the unit of measurement used in the Bible to build Noah’s Ark.
Duncan said the disasters should remind Kansans that the state is vulnerable to bad weather year-round and they should be prepared _ especially if they’re in local or state government.
“You will see more local governments pay more attention to financing emergency management activities,” he said.
Economists said disasters do provide the opportunity for struggling towns to get improved facilities, such as new city buildings and more technologically advanced homes. But any underlying economic weaknesses will likely remain a problem.
“If these were aging communities, shrinking towns, then the disaster is probably not going to change that,” said Robert Olshansky, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois. “In principle, there’s a great opportunity to make a dramatic improvement, but usually after disasters, most of those things don’t happen.”
Meteorologists said there’s no one cause of this year’s weather mayhem, noting that the blizzards were caused by a strong jet stream while the tornadoes and flooding were driven by a weak jet stream. For the rest of the summer, forecasters predict weather to remain between the extremes.
Of course, it could be worse. The Legislature hasn’t had to deal with locust swarms since 1874.
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