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Wichita branch of weather service nominated for gold medal from Commerce Department

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 31, 2013, at 7:48 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

The Wichita and Topeka branches of the National Weather Service are being considered for the Commerce Department’s highest honorary award for their work leading up to and during last year’s tornado outbreak on April 14.

Suzanne Fortin, the meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch, said she initially submitted paperwork for consideration of a silver medal, but officials have since chosen to consider it for a gold medal.

The medal is awarded for “distinguished performance characterized by extraordinary, notable, or prestigious contributions” that impact the Commerce Department or one of its units, according to a program for the 2013 awards ceremony held in January. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is part of the Commerce Department.

A decision on whether the medal will be awarded is expected sometime during the next few weeks, Fortin said. The Wichita branch has not received the gold medal for a weather event.

The outbreak on April 14 was the largest in south-central Kansas in more than 20 years.

“The last time we had a day of that magnitude was in 1991,” Fortin told a gathering of area fire chiefs and emergency managers last week.

A significant tornado outbreak occurred on April 26, including an EF-5 tornado that tore through Haysville, south Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover, killing 19 people.

On April 14 of last year, Fortin said, “everyone was looking at Wichita that day.”

Conditions were ripe for a major outbreak, with Wichita essentially in the bull’s-eye. Sure enough, 24 tornadoes touching down over the course of the day – including an EF-4 near Kanopolis Lake with winds of just under 200 mph, and two EF-3 tornadoes.

One of those EF-3s struck Oaklawn, McConnell Air Force Base and part of southeast Wichita after touching down at 10:21 p.m.

“It almost took a parallel track to the ’91 tornado,” Fortin told the group.

The tornado grew to as much as a mile wide and had top winds of about 160 mph.

“If it had to go through anyplace in Wichita, it went through the least populated area,” Fortin said.

At one point during the evening, it appeared a tornado was about to touch down and strike the agency’s Wichita branch on Tyler Road next to Mid-Continent Airport, prompting agency staff to go to shelter. The Topeka branch handled warnings for about 15 minutes while Wichita’s on-duty staff was in shelter. That’s why they’re being nominated for a medal as well.

There were no deaths in the outbreak and only a few injuries.

It was the first time new impact-based warnings were used “to highlight personal impact if action is not taken,” Fortin wrote in nominating the branches for the award.

Area emergency management directors credited the warnings – and statements several days in advance cautioning residents of the looming severe weather threat – with saving lives and limiting injuries. Every tornado that touched down had a warning issued for it beforehand, and the average lead time before tornadoes struck was 21 minutes.

The proactive forecasts in the days leading up to April 14 prompted officials at McConnell to relocate its KC-135 fleet to protect it from storm damage, the nomination states. Numerous high school proms in the area were moved to buildings with storm shelters.

The Little House on the Prairie Museum in Independence closed. When a tornado emergency was issued for Wichita, the nomination states, 15,000 people sheltered in place at the Intrust Bank Arena downtown.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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