Chinn Selected Kansas Sheriff of the Year
Courtesy of the Pratt Tribune
By Gale Rose
Pratt County Sheriff Vernon Chinn is the 2007 Kansas Sheriff of the Year. Chinn received the honor at the annual Kansas Sheriff's Association meeting.
Chinn was honored for his efforts during the Greensburg tornado disaster of May 4 that killed 10 and injured dozens. The award was a surprise for Chinn and he was grateful for the honor.
"I never dreamed I was going to get it. It was pretty humbling," Chinn said.
Chinn was also elected as KSA second vice president, a step towards eventually becoming KSA president.
The honor could not have happened with the support of his staff and the community, Chinn said.
"A lot of people had a hand in making this happen," Chinn said.
Pratt County also suffered an EF5 tornado that night claiming the life of Alexander Giles. Undersheriff Rick Shriver took charge of Pratt County while Pratt County Sheriff's Detective Norman Bennett and Sheriff's Deputy Harry Williams were sent to Greensburg. The department was stretched to the limit, Chinn said.
Kansas Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Bruce Mellor notified Chinn of the disaster shortly after it happened. Chinn was in Augusta but immediately headed to Greensburg where he spent the next four weeks working 16 to 20 hour days organizing, scheduling and managing the numerous law enforcement agencies that responded to the disaster.
Chinn and Ford County Sheriff Dean Bush worked together to assist Kiowa County Sheriff Galen Marble who lost his home, his vehicles, his office, communication equipment and vehicles.
Bush came to the aid of Pratt County following their tornado on May 7, 2002.
Chinn and Bush started a unified command center and dealt with numerous problems they had never encountered before. Eight-man rescue teams were formed, a search grid was established but there were no street signs or landmarks. All emergency services in Greensburg were destroyed, there was no power, no water and all streets were blocked with debris.
"We had never been in a disaster where the infrastructure was wiped out," Chinn said. "It was the biggest challenge of my life."
His duty was to reestablish law enforcement in Greensburg and Kiowa County. He knew that dishonest people would make their way Greensburg and take advantage of the situation.
Chinn set up in the Kansas Department of Transportation building on the east side of Greensburg. It didn't have electricity but it was one of the few buildings left standing.
As the early damage reports came in, Chinn said they estimated they would have 200 deaths but as the hours progressed, it was obvious that estimate was very high. Ten people died in the Greensburg tornado.
"It was a miracle. It was not a repeat of Udall," Chinn said.
Udall was hit by an F5 tornado in 1955. The town was destroyed, 77 people were killed and 250 injured.
The number of people pouring out of Greensburg and heading to the KDOT building stunned Chinn. Parents couldn't find children and children couldn't find parents. He will never forget the line of people and the look of fear, horror and total disbelief on their faces, Chinn said.
Although the tornado was on a Friday, he didn't have a chance to get out of building and into Greensburg until Sunday morning. He will never forget what the saw. Buildings were destroyed, cars were rolled and rolled and trees were shredded.
"It looked like a war zone," Chinn said. "It looked like an atom bomb had gone off. It reminded me of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
It was difficult to keep track of all the agencies that came to help but in three days 60 agencies had responded. He couldn't have done his job without everyone pitching in to help, Chinn said.
KHP Captains Alan Stoecklein of Hutchinson, Dave Ploutz of Garden City and Kelly McGuire were Chinn's right arm during the disaster. The KBI, Highway Patrol, National Guard and Cannonball Trail Chapter of the American Red Cross were crucial during the Greensburg disaster, Chinn said.
The KSA awards selection committee was Retired Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Larry Welch, Kansas Highway Patrol Superintendent Billy Seck and KSA Executive Director Darrell Wilson. They voted unanimously to give Chinn the award.
Chinn became a Pratt County Deputy in 1991. He was elected sheriff in 2000 and took office in 2001.
The KSA represents the counties and sheriff's office in legislative matters.