A large tornado bore down on Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport long after sunset Saturday night, taking a path that would bring it right through downtown — where country music star Miranda Lambert was performing at Intrust Bank Arena.
The tornado drew so close to the airport that the staff of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service, which is next to the airport, turned operational duties over to the Topeka office and sought shelter.
Then it lifted.
Even as that twister fell apart, a new tornado was developing farther to the east. It would churn through Oaklawn, south Wichita and into Butler County, causing damage estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars but no fatalities or critical injuries.
“It could have been so much worse,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service’s Wichita branch.
A damage survey team rated the Wichita tornado an EF3 on Sunday, meaning it had maximum winds of up to 165 mph. The most significant damage was found in Oaklawn and on the west side of McConnell Air Force Base. The team was continuing to assess the damage path late Sunday afternoon.
Another survey team rated a central Kansas tornado EF4 — with winds of more than 166 mph — for damage left behind at a farmstead near Kanopolis Lake in Ellsworth County.
A third team went to southern Kansas to chart the paths of tornadoes from the Oklahoma state line south of Anthony to Clearwater.
It could be several days before officials know just how many tornadoes touched down in Kansas during Saturday’s outbreak. The Storm Prediction Center logged 97 reports of tornadoes in Kansas.
“The environmental conditions were favorable for supercells to produce long-track tornadoes,” said Bill Bunting, chief of the operations branch at the Storm Prediction Center.
That doesn’t mean one tornado stayed on the ground for hours at a time, however. More than one supercell thunderstorm in Kansas produced multiple tornadoes as they moved across the state.
The supercell thunderstorm that generated the Wichita tornado began producing tornadoes in Oklahoma more than two hours before arriving in Wichita and continued to develop tornadoes long after the storm had moved into the Flint Hills.
“It may take a few days to get a really comprehensive picture of the exact track and the intensity of the tornadoes,” Bunting said.
Forecasters say the tornadic storm caused localized flooding of streets and basements, though few reports were made to the weather service.
“I’m sure everyone was more concerned about the tornado,” said Robb Lawson, a meteorologist with the weather service.
Radar indicated the storm also brought large hail to the metropolitan area, Lawson said, but almost no hail reports were called in.