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Experts urge tornado vigilance, preparedness

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 25, 2014, at 11:27 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, July 12, 2014, at 7:53 a.m.

Photos

Survival kit

What should I have in my survival kit?

Water: one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)

Food: non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)

Flashlight

Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (NOAA Weather Radio, if possible)

Extra batteries

First-aid kit

Medications (7-day supply) and medical items

Multi-purpose tool

Sanitation and personal hygiene items

Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)

Cellphone with chargers

Family and emergency contact information

Extra cash

Emergency blanket

Map(s) of the area

Source: American Red Cross

Severe weather – including tornadoes – could strike the Wichita metropolitan area and points west on Saturday night, weather officials say.

While a significant outbreak isn’t likely, officials say, tornadoes are possible: particularly along and west of K-14 before sunset.

“There will be a tornado risk,” said William Bunting, chief of the operations branch at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “We’ve got to maintain vigilance.”

Storms are expected to fire up along a dry line in central Kansas Saturday afternoon, Bunting said. The National Weather Service projects the greatest tornado threat to be west of a line from Anthony to Lyons to Lincoln. By the time the storms reach Wichita, the greatest threats are likely to be large hail and damaging winds.

Depending on how quickly the line drifts eastward, however, Wichita could be at risk for a tornado after dark, Bunting said.

There could be “several tornadoes” Saturday, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist-in-charge at the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service, but he expects them to be in two areas: one in Oklahoma and the other straddling north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska.

The severe weather threat will then shift east of the Flint Hills on Sunday and south and east of Kansas early next week.

Kansans should not change their weekend plans, weather officials say, but they should be prepared to seek appropriate shelter if severe weather develops.

Finding shelter

American Red Cross officials urged Kansans to create or review their home disaster plans and pack an emergency preparedness kit. People who are out and about Saturday evening would be wise to figure out where they can take shelter in the event of severe weather, officials said.

“Take advantage of the best cover you have where you’re at,” Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said.

Staying home is almost always a much better option than trying to outrun or flee a tornado, weather officials and emergency management directors say. The one clear exception, they say, is if you are in manufactured housing such as a mobile home.

“By far the best recommendation is to shelter in place,” said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

Widespread coverage of deadly tornadoes that struck in Oklahoma only days apart last year included claims that people “have to be underground to survive” large tornadoes.

“We know that’s just not true,” Brooks said.

Research has shown that people who are inside houses hit by EF5 tornadoes have only a 1 to 2 percent of being killed, Brooks said.

The best chances of surviving large tornadoes, Brooks and other officials said, is to get as low as you can “and put as many walls between you and the tornado as possible.”

Basements are the best option, if they’re available. Manufactured housing is perhaps the worst.

“Mobile homes — you need to get out of those,” Brooks said.

In Butler County east of Wichita, officials have been stressing shelter rules at severe weather safety classes this spring.

“Tornadoes that can actually eat through all the walls and make it to your center room — those are statistically so rare,” said Keri Korthals, acting director of Butler County Emergency Management.

Seeing I-35 and other major routes in Oklahoma City jammed to a standstill by traffic as tornadoes threatened last May was a sickening sight to emergency managers in the Wichita area.

If one of those tornadoes had tracked along the interstate, “the loss of life would have been staggering,” said Jim Schmidt, a Butler County official who oversees EMS operations.

Danger in cars

People who are caught in their vehicles as a tornado approaches should make sure they’re buckled in and then get as low as they can below the windows and windshield “and hang on,” Schmidt said.

The storm killed three highly respected storm chasers-researchers.

“If it can get them, it can get any of us,” Schmidt said of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young, who were caught and killed by the El Reno tornado in Oklahoma on May 31 as they were attempting to place data-collecting probes in its projected path.

Tim Samaras was a longtime chaser and noted researcher who preached safety and caution. But the El Reno tornado expanded and accelerated dramatically and then made a hard left turn, research revealed.

A smaller, stronger satellite tornado looped back around in a circle, catching and crushing the vehicle containing the three men.

The El Reno tornado’s hard left turn and loop to the northwest reminded Schmidt of the tornado that nearly wiped Greensburg off the map in 2007. That kind of unpredictable behavior is why Schmidt said he doesn’t recommend trying to outrun a tornado in a vehicle.

The scenes of scores of vehicles crushed by the Joplin tornado – along with the wreckage of The Weather Channel’s chase vehicle and Samaras’ chase vehicle caused by the El Reno tornado – are heart-wrenching reminders of how vulnerable cars can be Schmidt said.

Tornado sirens in Sedgwick County now have the capability of being activated individually, allowing emergency management to sound only those sirens inside the geographic boundaries of a tornado warning.

It’s quite likely that some Wichita residents may hear a siren several blocks away while the siren closest to them remains silent, Duncan said. That won’t mean their siren is malfunctioning, he said — it means their area isn’t included in the warning.

“There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from taking shelter if you don’t feel comfortable” – even if the sirens aren’t sounding, Duncan said.

Then again, the tornado sirens are only intended to warn people who are outdoors, weather officials say.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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