A powerful storm sledgehammered northeast Kansas. Amidst the chaos, I spotted lessons for us all.

July 17, 2023 3:33 am
A tree uprooted after a storm

A tree in opinion editor Clay Wirestone’s neighborhood was uprooted by a severe thunderstorm on Friday afternoon. Those across Northeast Kansas saw similar destruction. (Clay Wirestone / Kansas Reflector)

I was eating ice cream in downtown Lawrence with my out-of-town friend, her two daughters and my son when the tornado sirens erupted.

Severe thunderstorms ripped through northeast Kansas on Friday, leaving tens of thousands without power, uprooting trees and pelting communities with hail. Lawrence fared better than some areas, but my city grappled with outages. Hurricane-force winds tore a tree out of the ground and split another in two at my neighborhood middle school. While the storm pounded, my friend and I, and our kids, sheltered in the ice cream parlor basement.

Two thoughts came to my mind that Friday afternoon. First, how lucky we all were to live with the luxury of protection from the elements.

Lawrence has grappled lately with problems of homelessness and housing costs. In upcoming city commission primary elections, most candidates have agreed on the urgency of the problem. Those without easy access to shelter live at the mercy of weather — not just thunderstorms, but also the heat wave that has left so much of the state sweltering through June and July.

Can you imagine living without a home? Can you imagine living without the fundamental comfort of — as an architect friend of mine once put it — a thermally controlled space?

After the worst of the weather passed, we made our way upstairs and peered out the plate glass windows of the ice cream shop. The sky looked like a purple bruise, and torrential rain pelted the streets. Water pooled on street corners, creating instant lakes, turbulent with stripped tree branches. Every few minutes, a car would creep down the road, headlights blazing through the stormy murk. No one should be at the mercy of such elements.

My other thought that afternoon was a deep appreciation of accidental community.

A tree was split after a storm
A tree was split by a severe thunderstorm on Friday in Lawrence. Tens of thousands lost power after the severe weather. (Clay Wirestone / Kansas Reflector)

In that basement space, my friend and I chatted and our children alternately amused themselves and complained of boredom. Other customers talked among themselves, sharing weather forecasts and updates gleaned from texts with loved ones. At one point, an alarmed looking cat and friendly dog (along with their owner) came downstairs to join the rest of us.

We have fewer and fewer connections to friends and family these days. On Saturday, Kansas Reflector ran a column about the “U.S. loneliness epidemic” from Clay Marsh, executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University.

“Social isolation and loneliness have the same effect on human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Marsh wrote, “which is to say, it can shorten life span by up to 15 years.”

What does it say that it took a severe thunderstorm to bring a couple dozen souls together for a half hour or so on Friday afternoon? What does it say that even though I mostly talked to my friend and son, the time of enforced togetherness made me feel … better somehow?

After returning home, I surveyed neighborhood damage.

Besides the middle school tree destruction, I didn’t see many causes for concern. A few small branches had fallen from the old oak tree in our front yard.

My son took the opportunity to grab an umbrella and explore, splashing through marshy puddles and gathering sticks. His unbridled joy brightened my mood, despite my thoughts of those in need and the ways in which we all experience community. I was looking for lessons; he was experiencing the moment.

Both my thoughts and his joy were a privilege, of course. We have a thermally conditioned space. We have a community of family and friends and schools.

What the storm suggested, amid the pelting rain and driving gusts, was that we owe others in our cities and towns more than we give them. We owe them shelter and security and connections that can blossom into real belonging. But that obligation doesn’t just apply to the homeless or those in need. That obligation applies to all of us, in our dealings with one another.

Are we giving our fellow humans shelter from the storm?

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.