April 13, 2012

Wichita in cross-hairs for violent tornadoes Saturday, forecasters warn

Conditions are ideal for a major tornado outbreak in Kansas and Oklahoma this afternoon and evening, weather officials say, and the Wichita area appears to be particularly vulnerable.

Conditions are ideal for a major tornado outbreak in Kansas and Oklahoma this afternoon and evening, weather officials say, and the Wichita area appears to be particularly vulnerable.

Any tornadoes that develop figure to be strong, stay on the ground and move at more than 50 mph.

“The potential for violent tornadoes will be there,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center has posted a high risk for severe weather in an area roughly bounded by Salina and Topeka to the north and Oklahoma City to the south. Hayes said the bull’s-eye for tornadoes appears to be bounded by K-14 to the west, K-99 to the east, the Oklahoma border to the south and U.S. 50 to the north.

That would put the Wichita area in the crosshairs.

“We strongly urge everyone in Kansas to be on the alert and determine where you go should a tornado or strong storms bear down on your area,” Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, director of the state emergency management division, said in a statement. “Many events are planned across the state this weekend including sporting events, concerts and proms. Plan now how you will get up-to-date weather information wherever you are, determine where you will take cover, and decide how you will meet up with family if you are not together and phone service is out.”

Today’s storms are expected to fire up in the late afternoon or early evening, and strong tornadoes are even possible after sunset.

“The potential for night-time tornadoes is an especially dangerous scenario,” weather service meteorologist Ken Cook said.

Forecasters have been warning of this potential outbreak for several days now, urging residents to pay attention to conditions, put together a home survival kit, and be prepared to seek shelter on short notice.

The east-side Target superstore reported being out of gallon jugs of drinking water by early Friday afternoon.

Circle High School cancelled a planned trip to El Dorado Lake for 150 students, said Butler County Emergency Management director Jim Schmidt.

“We’ve got as many people as we can getting the word out,” Schmidt said. “We don’t want to panic people, but they need to understand how important it is.

“The biggest thing that concerns us, especially when it’s at El Dorado Lake, is when they talk about it being after dark.”

There are no storm shelters at the lake, Schmidt said, so they would want to provide enough warning time for campers to find a safe place.

Computer modeling

Advances in computer models and forecasting techniques now allow meteorologists to detect well ahead of time when conditions will be favorable for a tornado outbreak, Hayes said. Meteorologists have been warning that an outbreak was possible late this week for several days now.

The Storm Prediction Center posted a “moderate” threat for severe weather today two days ago — a step not taken since the massive outbreak in the Deep South on April 27, 2011. The risk was elevated to “high” on Friday.

“We’re able to pick up on weather systems quicker than we previously did,” Hayes said. “Therefore, we’re able to identify these types of situations and alert the public.”

The weather service will be using its new warning language focusing on the potential impact of storms, but Sedgwick County will continue to rely on its all-or-nothing approach to sending tornado sirens.

“Since the conversion to the new ‘digital’ system isn’t complete, we are still on the ‘all or nothing’ system of activation,” Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Randy Duncan said. “We purposely decided to maintain both systems of activation in place to cover potential situations like we face this weekend.”

The rainy spring has delayed completion of the conversion, Duncan said, because new poles could not be installed in muddy ground and technicians couldn’t install upgrades on existing poles during thunderstorms.

The timing and location of today’s outbreak will depend on when and where thunderstorms developed late Friday night and early this morning in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma, forecasters said.

While the tornado threat was minimal for Kansas from the overnight and early morning storms, the thunderstorms were nonetheless capable of strong winds and large hail.

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