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Tornado Hits Wichita's Ailing Aviation Industry


The tornado season started early in much of the nation and continued over the weekend. Spotters reported more than 120 tornadoes on Saturday. One killed five people in Woodward, Oklahoma. Others ripped into homes and businesses in Iowa and Kansas. And that includes the heart of the economy in Wichita, the aviation industry. Here's Frank Morris from member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Kansas got the most tornadoes, almost 100 of them. Possibly a record, according to Sam Brownback, the governor. But more remarkable, he says, was that the warnings were days early and that people took them seriously.

GOVERNOR SAM BROWNBACK: And as a result of that and the grace of God, we had no fatalities associated with 97 tornadoes. You just - really, the real story here is what didn't happen.


MORRIS: The tornado in Wichita just grazed the edge of the city, grinding up a neighborhood of mobile homes and small houses. Donavan Kyle survived, packed into a concrete shelter with neighbors.

DONAVAN KYLE: Lot of noise, you could hear everything crashing, sounded like the storm shelter was going to come apart. Then it was over. Looked around, and there was debris and wide open spaces and homes missing.

MORRIS: Then the twister tore into Wichita's sprawling aviation industry. It mangled part of a Boeing hangar where Air Force II was parked for maintenance, and slammed Spirit AeroSystems.

KEVIN BELL: Looks pretty bad out there. Must be pretty bad, because the news is saying we ain't got to go to work tomorrow or Tuesday. And, God, I can't afford two days. Just started working not too long ago.

MORRIS: Kevin Bell, an aircraft factory worker, was out of work two and a half years before landing a job at Spirit Aero Systems. His plight is pretty common around here. Wichita's aviation industry hit serious headwinds long before Saturday's tornado, according to Molly McMillan, the Wichita Eagle's aviation industry correspondent.

MOLLY MCMILLAN: When the aviation industry sneezes, we all catch cold, so to speak.

MORRIS: And Wichita was in bed with a hot water bottle on its head after the recession kicked the bottom out of the airplane market. The city's manufactures cut 13,000 high paying jobs. If that weren't bad enough, earlier this year Boeing announced that it's severing an 85-year relationship with the city and taking more than 2,000 jobs with it. That's another 2,000 skilled workers who won't build houses, buy boats or dine out like they use to.

Despite all that, Carl Brewer, the city's disaster-worn mayor, perks up visibly when asked about Wichita's relationship to aviation.

MAYOR CARL BREWER: Wichita is the air capital of the world. It's very important.

MORRIS: Many people here will tell you that Wichita, Kansas still makes more airplanes than any other city on Earth by far. Cessna, Bombardier and Hawker Beechcraft run enormous factories here, pumping out thousands of business jets and propeller craft. And Mike Pompeo, Wichita's congressman, who like the mayor had a career in aerospace before politics, says Sprit is only out temporarily.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE POMPEO: It looks like most of the machinery, most of the equipment, most of the things inside those buildings, are in pretty good shape, and that's a great sign.

MORRIS: So it appears the economic downturn has buffeted Wichita's aerospace industry much worse than the weekend's swarm of tornadoes.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Wichita, Kansas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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