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Greensburg survivors learn hard lessons about coping with disaster

Staff writer

March 2 to 6 is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas. Two Marion residents learned more than they ever wanted to know about severe weather in 2007, and offered tips to be prepared.

Marion residents Chelsi and Javan Koehn lived in Greensburg on May 4, 2007 when the town was devastated by an F5 tornado that flattened 95% of the town and killed 11 people at 9:47 p.m.

“It pretty well wiped the town off the map,” Chelsi Koehn said.

The Koehns purchased their home one month to the day before the deadly storm hit. Chelsi was nine months pregnant at the time.

They were at home when the twister struck.

“We were in the basement,” she said. “Traditionally they tell you to be to a northeast corner room.”

The smaller room where Chelsi insisted on taking shelter was the only one in the house not completely destroyed.

“When the tornado hit there was a silence that was unbelievable,” she said. “You could have heard a pin drop a mile away. My husband started to get up and I yelled at him to come back because that was the calm before the storm.”

It was a good thing Javan listened to his wife that night.

“Where my husband had been sitting on the couch before I made him move, there were shards of glass that went straight through the couch.”

Javan was the first to go out to see what remained after the storm passed. The back door was wedged shut by a large tree that had been uprooted.

He stepped out the front door. At that moment, a lightning strike illuminated the darkness and he saw there was nothing where the high school had been.

They heard neighbors yelling for help and went to their aid. One neighbor had been struck on the head with a 2x4.

Water from the city’s water tower flooded the street.

“We knew there were power lines that were probably down,” Chelsi said. “A man in a truck came down the street. He had seen the storm hit from outside of town. He stopped and asked if he could help us.”

The Koehns were among the last to get on a bus and evacuate.

The terror of their brush with death took a toll on Chelsi’s pregnancy.

“Apparently I had gone into labor and didn’t even feel it,” she said.

Fortunately, medical personnel were able to delay her delivery for two weeks.

“How we were taken care of was a crucial part of how we were able to deal with it,” Chelsi said.

The road to recovery

Chelsi said she had not yet made an inventory for her insurance company, and the fact she hadn’t made it difficult to work with them.

One of her biggest recommendations for others is to take photos and make a video of everything in the house and the house itself.

“Put that video in a safe deposit box or with a relative,” Chelsi said.

In 2007, the house and its contents exceeded the value of the insurance policy.

“Had we had the pictures it would have been easier,” Chelsi said.

Marion insurance agent Alex Case said insurance companies offer several types of homeowner’s policies, each with different payment levels in the event of a loss.

“The best thing is when you’re selling somebody a homeowner’s policy, you should stand in their front yard and ask, ‘What would you want if your house was completely destroyed?’ ” Case said. “What most people would want is full replacement.”

Case said policies offering full replacement can be difficult to sell in towns like Marion, where a $60,000 to $100,000 home could well cost $200,000 to rebuild.

A policy that includes “ordinance and law” coverage can protect a homeowner against being paid only a portion of the home’s value because only part of the home was destroyed, but the home is condemned by the building inspector because of foundation damage.

Some policies include guaranteed replacement value. Guaranteed replacement adds 25% to the original coverage.

“One coverage that used to be kind of a joke but now isn’t funny anymore is earthquake coverage,” Case said.

Case said he’s sold probably two dozen earthquake policies.

“I’ve never filed an earthquake claim but I’ve heard of houses getting damage to the foundation and the house is condemned,” he said.

Chelsi Koehn said she and Javan worked closely with Shelter Insurance agent Doug Heery to find a policy that would cover their new home and found just the right one.

She has additional tips for being prepared for disaster.

“I recommend taking a moment to breathe and sit down and don’t look at the big picture of everything that needs to be done,” she said. “For us at that time it was making sure we were safe and get some clothes on our backs.”

She also said each of their children has their own emergency backpack containing bottled water, nonperishable food, and a change of clothing.

“I would also recommend having an identification bracelet in that bag just in case they get separated from you,” she said.

A weather radio is a good idea, especially if you can’t hear the sirens, she said.

“Having a plan is what I would recommend the most,” she said. “Our family has a plan for every emergency event, what to know, where to meet. I would recommend sitting down with the family, making a plan.”

Last modified March 5, 2020

 

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