Kansas KOA Survives May 22 Tornado
Editor’s Note: Susan Austin, franchisee communications manager for Kampgrounds of America Inc., prepared this story.
For most, tornado season in Kansas is a looming threat we hear about, but never experience. But on Thursday, May 22, a tornado descended on WaKeeney, Kan., and took over the lives of Machele Dunagan, the guests at her KOA Kampground, and Rudy, her 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.
Greg and Machele Dunagan own the WaKeeney/Hays KOA Kampground. They are in a transitional phase, as Greg has taken on the job of managing a Kampgrounds of America corporately-owned property at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, Nev., while Machele operates the Kansas campground until it’s sold. Greg was in Las Vegas when the killer storm descended on his family and guests.
At 9 p.m., Machele anxiously monitored the storm reports on TV and the weather radio while listening for the alarm siren. She’d called the police earlier and had been told that they would not sound the alarm unless they received a report of a tornado touching down. But the winds and hail told Machele it was time to act. She called one of her work campers, “Meet me at the store; let’s round up the guests and get them to safety.”
As Machele and Rudy left the mobile home, the tornado touched down – in the campground. “Rudy and I made it only to the front sidewalk when we saw one of our Kamping Kabins rise up, fly by and crash down, blocking our main exit road. I turned to grab Rudy, but I was thrown over the rock landscaping wall, injuring my leg as I came down.” When Machele stood up, Rudy was nowhere in sight.
Campers abandoned their RVs and ran for cover. Machele made a habit of instructing guests to go to the bathroom building if the weather turned bad. On this day, they’d listened, but one camper wasn’t fast enough. Just as he stepped off the RV’s stair, the wind ripped the RV out from under his feet, spinning it over and over and hurling him to the ground. He pulled himself up and ran with everyone else to the bathrooms.
Machele, limping on her injured, swelling leg, made it back inside and called 9-1-1. Within minutes, the emergency medical service team and fire department were on site, and together with Machele, they checked the bathrooms, then each campsite and RV for anyone who might be left outside. Finally, Machele was confident that each guest and worker was accounted for. Then the EMS personnel, firefighters and Machele joined the guests in the bathroom building.
The storm raged through the campground, tearing and shredding everything in its path. Windows were blown out, the roof of the main building was ripped away, two trees were uprooted and most of a 500-foot fence was dismantled and strewn over the property. Four RVs were picked up and flipped over, one smashing to the ground more than two campsites away with its slide-out side torn off.
As the tornado moved off to continue its damage elsewhere, Machele and the others emerged from the bathrooms to find their homes and RVs damaged, toppled or ruined. Machele searched in vain for Rudy.
Recovery Begins Quickly
Then, an amazing thing happened: fellow KOA managers, owners, work kampers, ex-employees and KOA corporate franchisee service representatives arrived to help the Dunagans with their devastated campground. They all went to work removing loads of debris, ripped roofing, the mangled fencing, shattered window glass, tree branches and flattened picnic tables. The process of getting the campers back up and running, towing their vehicles, alerting insurance companies and their families was completed. “With everyone’s help, we got the place back in shape and we were up and running and ready for business by Saturday night. We didn’t have to shut down or turn a single person away,” said Greg.
Five days after the tornado, on Wednesday, May 28, their mailman came driving up – two hours earlier than usual. He heartily called out, “Special delivery! No postage due!” Greg and Machele looked out to see Rudy’s scuffed-up but happy face in the cab.
Greg and Machele extend their most sincere thanks to all the people who helped them through this experience: Daryle Schwerdt of the Salina KOA; Ralph Newell of the Branson & Lawrence KOAs; Terry Haith of the Oklahoma City KOA; FSR Team Steve and Jane Snyder; Susan and Tom, ex-KOA work kampers and managers for Ralph Newell; and many friends and ex-employees; and – of course – their mailman.