Sunday, April 15. 2012
I spent most of Saturday, April 14, watching television. The only shows on was the weather, which I could supplement with the radar feed from Weather Underground. The Storm Prediction Center had forecast "a high risk of severe weather" -- the last time that was forecast was April 7, 2006, in advance of an outbreak of over 100 tornadoes -- and the dead center of the risk area was very close to (maybe a bit south of) Wichita, KS. The day's weather map showed a cold front straight north-south along the Colorado-Kansas and New Mexico-Texas borders, and a stationary front hanging from the north end of the cold front northeast across Nebraska toward Chicago. As the cold front swept across Kansas southerly winds swept moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico, collecting into storm cells tracking from 30-70 mph north-northeast, turning more east as they crossed I-70 in north Kansas. These cells generally started across the border in Oklahoma, or possibly in Texas, and they started in the west.
Weather is serious business here in Kansas, with the television station competing fiercely for viewership with the latest, fanciest radar system feeds, live storm tracker reports, viewer-supplied photos, etc. (It's a big farm state, and not unusual for city people to have come off farms -- both of my parents did.) So it was possible to watch nothing but weather from noon, when the first tornado touched down in Hodgeman county (southwest KS, north of Dodge City) until well after midnight. At a typical moment late-afternoon, there were four widely separated storm cells, each moving northeast, each with a well-defined hook on the south edge near the rear of the storm indicating a large tornado. The new radars can measure wind shear, and they can distinguish hail from rain and debris sucked up by a tornado from hail -- remarkable images, I can say, as someone who's watched tornados come and go ever since the one that obliterated Udall, KS back in 1955.
Wikipedia lists 122 reported tornadoes during this outbreak, but currently only lists 13 as confirmed. Some of the reports are redundant, referring to the same tornado as it progressed -- presumably, as they evaluate the damage and sort out the paths the spottings will be sorted out. Some of the early tornados passed through territory I knew well. The Hodgeman county tornado was very close to the farm where my great-great-grandfather homesteaded c. 1870, and moved north of Spearville, where my father was born, and Kinsley, where an aunt lived for many years -- I must have visited that are a hundred times. Later a tornado kicked up between Geneseo and Little River, in Rice county, which is where my grandfather had a farm in the 1950s. That tornado then moved northwest toward Marquette, where he had moved in 1960, and where an aunt lived, then skittered northeast toward Salina.
Another tornado formed between Mullinville and Greensburg, south of Kinsley, then moved very fast northeast, crossing US-50 near St. John, and turning east to take another pass at Marquette. A later tornado took a similar path, slightly to the north, near Kanapolis and Brookville, then just missed Salina to the north. I later looked at a map of accumulated precipitation that consisted of four or five long streaks following these storm paths, separated by troughs that got virtually no rain.
Later storms moved a bit closer, into McPherson county, but all of those storms were well clear of Wichita, which was overcast all day and intermittently windy. First storm that worried me popped up north of Enid, OK, and crossed into Kansas near Bluff City -- reported as a "half-mile wide wedge tornado." This same cell cut across Harper and northwest Sumner counties into Sedgwick, aiming toward Haysville in Wichita's south suburbs. I haven't heard of any damage in Haysville, but a couple miles east an EF-3 tornado did massive destruction in Oaklawn, then hit the massive Spirit (formerly Boeing) plant, crossed McConnell AFB, did some damage at US-54 and Greenwich, and proceeded northeast past Andover and El Dorado for another 80 miles or so before eventually blowing out over the Flint Hills east of Cassoday.
We live just northwest of downtown Wichita, about six miles from the storm path. We spent about an hour in the basement, with only the radio on, so we were a bit sensory-deprived. We got some very heavy rain, possibly a bit of hail and wind, but mostly rain -- much more than the new drain I dug in the backyard could handle. Elsewhere there was quite a bit of local flooding. Electric power was a bit iffy here, but held up. Doesn't seem to have been much damage outside of the tornado path, but there over 100 poles were knocked down, blacking out 20,000 people and closing roads.
After that cleared, another line of storms developed to the west and started moving east: I suspect this was finally the cold front moving through. Around 2am the Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for Sedgwick county, but the storm weakened and passed through Wichita by 3am with some lightning and more rain. That would seem to have been enough drama for one day and night, but the worst for us happened about 3:30am when I heard a loud hissing sound, and went into the bathroom to find the supply hose broken loose from the toilet and spraying water all over the place. I turned the valve shut and mopped up the water, including big drops collecting on the ceiling.
Got up around noon to a bright and sunny day where everything seemed normal again. Drove to the hardware store to get the part to fix the toilet, and saw no damage in the area -- river was a bit up, and saw some baby ducks on it. I haven't tried to drive anywhere near the damage, but looked through the slide shows at Kansas.com. I've also seen photos of isolated damage out west and north, but most of the territory those storms crossed is empty -- farms and ranchland -- so there isn't much to hit. (The population of Hodgeman county is 1,916; one of the lowest in Kansas.) What differentiated the Wichita tornado was that it had something to hit, but even so it was only a glancing blow.
According to the TV news tonight, there were 93 tornados in this bout. The TV people were all very happy that no one had been killed in Kansas last night, but when I woke up this morning 5 people had been killed in Woodward, OK. After the storm cleared Wichita I had figured that the later storms would be weaker, so I was distressed to see that there were still new tornado warnings in Oklahoma. The Woodward one (in northwest Oklahoma, just east of the panhandle) hit around midnight, so that would have been one of the ones I saw.
The Wichita tornado was last spotted near Cassoday shortly before midnight -- since that cell had developed in Oklahoma it had covered over 200 miles in about six hours, nearly all the time with a large tornado on the ground. That was the last Kansas tornado, although today there was one more in Oklahoma, several in Nebraska, one in South Dakota, another in Minnesota.
Gov. Brownback was quick to declare Sedgwick County a disaster area, and to come to Wichita to survey the damage at Spirit, and promise state aid to get the factory back into working order. I don't know whether he spent much time in Oaklawn, which before it was hit was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the metro area. Ironic, you might think, for a guy who spends so much of his time trying to undermine and dismantle government, but there's really no one else to turn to when disaster strikes. I've been saying all along that disaster response is the fundamental test of how well government serves -- something Clinton proved when he promoted FEMA to cabinet level, and something Bush found out when he tried to gut the department.
But also important is the Weather Service. Without them we would have been in Udall yesterday. (Or Mississippi, which invariably leads the nation in the most people killed per tornado.)
 The Udall tornado in 1955 was the deadliest ever to hit Kansas, killing 77, more than 10% of Udall's population, injuring another 270 (close to 50%), damaging every building within city limits, destroying most. Udall is 24 miles southeast of Wichita, just off a road we used to take to go visit relatives in Oklahoma. The Weather Bureau failed to forecast the storm, and there were no warnings. Afterwards, there was a major push to create a storm warning system.
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