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Joplin tornado a reminder of why tornado warnings must be taken seriously

  • Finger on the Weather
  • Published Friday, May 27, 2011, at 1:21 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 27, 2011, at 1:49 p.m.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a video of the Joplin tornado as it touches down last Sunday night. It was shot by Isaac Pato, Colt Forney, Scott Peake, and Kevin Rolfs of Basehunters Chasing).

Tornadoes are scary enough as it is, but this one is particularly unsettling because it morphs from barely visible rope to wedge in a matter of seconds.

In that respect, the Joplin tornado resembles the tornado that struck Hoisington on April 21, 2001. That beast touched down just west of town just after dark, mushroomed into an EF4 within seconds, and tore through the northern part of Hoisington. Remarkably, only two people were killed. Residents of the Barton County town had heeded the advice of meteorologists to seek shelter from the approaching thunderstorm because it had produced funnel clouds in a neighboring county.

If the high numbers of deaths and injuries this tornado season aren’t enough of a reminder to take tornado watches and warnings seriously, the Hoisington and Joplin tornadoes should drive the point home rather emphatically.

Here’s a story I wrote in the aftermath of the Hoisington tornado. It originally ran on April 25, 2001 in the Wichita Eagle.

‘IT’S UNCHARTED TERRITORY’ HOISINGTON STORM WORRIES FORECASTERS – EVEN SEASONED WEATHER WATCHERS ARE PUZZLED AT THE SPEED AT WHICH THE F-4 TORNADO THAT HIT HOISINGTON ON SATURDAY NIGHT DEVELOPED.

Sunset was imminent, and a strong wind was blowing outward from the thunderstorm that loomed over Rush County in central Kansas. Recognizing the wind’s outflow as a sign the storm was dying, veteran storm chasers following the system decided to head to nearby Great Bend for a bite to eat; meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Wichita watched the storm disintegrate on radar. Minutes later, the chasers were beginning to eat when the lights began flickering at the restaurant. “That’s not good,” Jim Reed told fellow storm chaser Jon Davies. Another supercell thunderstorm had suddenly erupted, but the Weather Service meteorologists in Wichita did not see any of the telltale signs of a tornado. Until it was too late. “It came down with a vengeance,” said Dick Elder, chief meteorologist for the Weather Service office in Wichita. Saturday’s tornado did not just smash a large chunk of Hoisington, killing one and injuring 28. It has wiped out widely held beliefs of what tornadoes can do – as well as the storms that produce them. “The outcome was very unusual, and very surprising,” Reed said. “We utilized everything we’d been taught in spotter training programs and out-in-the-field experience to interpret what was going on. “We did not see it coming.” The latest generation of radar is designed to detect wind shear, rotating winds aloft and other weather phenomena that indicate tornadoes are imminent. The largest tornadoes – such as the ones that struck Hesston in 1990, Haysville, Wichita and Andover in 1991 and Haysville and Wichita again in 1999 – routinely dip down a few times before gaining strength and staying on the ground for extended periods. But the Hoisington tornado went from infant to monster in seconds: Less than half a mile from where it touched down just west of the city, the tornado developed wind speeds exceeding 200 mph. “In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen one do that that quickly,” Elder said. “That’s something I’ll never forget as long as I live. “Even if we would have said ‘Tornado Warning, a tornado is on the ground,’ it wouldn’t have done Hoisington any good, because it was so close to the town,” he said. What saved so many lives, Elder said, was that weather-savvy residents heeded the severe thunderstorm warning that was in effect – including the caution that tornadoes were possible – and headed to the basement. Debriefings are standard procedure at the Weather Service after severe weather outbreaks, but the meetings this week have been especially intense. “The thing I’m asking myself is ‘Are there (radar) signatures there that could have told us 15 to 20 minutes before the tornado touched down? Could we have seen a tornado was there?’ ” Elder said. WeatherData Inc., a private forecasting service based in Wichita, notified Western Resources – a client with operations in Barton County – that a tornado could very well form in that county shortly after 9 p.m. And several Hoisington residents reported that the last thing they saw on television before their electricity went out Saturday night was KWCH, Channel 12 meteorologist Jeremy Vogel warning them to seek shelter from a strong thunderstorm moving toward them. The same storm system had produced tornadoes near Rush Center and Timken earlier in the evening, he said, and tornadoes were still possible. But Elder said the thunderstorms that prompted those warnings had died, and the tornado that hit Hoisington formed from a different cell. “I wish the dadgum thing would do like most of ‘em do – show its signature (on radar), start small and then get big,” Elder said of that tornado. “This one’s left me more gray-headed than ever.” Davies, a nationally respected private meteorologist, said on his Web site, “I’m more than a little shaken and confused from a spotting standpoint by what I witnessed on the Hoisington storm.” Vogel said Saturday night demonstrated that even with the most advanced technology, mankind has not gotten the upper hand on Mother Nature. “You can have all the equipment in the world, and . . . when they want to drop, they’re going to drop,” Vogel said of tornadoes. “You come all this way” in technology, he said, “and yet this could have been another Udall, if it were 1955, because it was at night.” The deadliest tornado in state history wiped out a sleeping Udall on May 25, 1955, killing 80 people. Reed, who markets photographs he has taken of unusual and severe weather, said he is going to reconsider how he approaches his work; Saturday scared him. “We’re talking about storms that some of us have never seen before, in terms of their behavior,” he said. “It’s uncharted territory.” Reach Stan Finger at 268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

A postscript: The story says one person died, but an elderly woman injured by the tornado died a few months later.

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