May 19, 2013

Severe weather hits Wichita, Sedgwick County; tornado spotted near ICT airport

A fast-moving storm produced heavy rain, hail and at least one tornado in the Wichita area on Sunday, damaging homes, knocking out power and disrupting graduation ceremonies.

A fast-moving storm produced heavy rain, hail and at least one tornado in the Wichita area on Sunday, damaging homes, knocking out power and disrupting graduation ceremonies.

There were more than 10,500 customers without power in the Wichita area as of 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Westar Energy spokesman Nick Bundy said. A majority of those were expected to have power by 10:30 p.m., but all of the outages probably won’t be fixed until late Monday night, he added. About 600 residents in Butler County and 1,600 in Greenwood County also were without power.

A large portion of the outages were in southwest Wichita, where 37 power poles were down in the area of 135th Street West and 55th Street South, Bundy said.

"At this point, there are very few reports of damage and no reports of fatalities or injuries, and we're very grateful for that," said Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan

A large tornado was reported near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport shortly before 4 p.m. Sunday as part of the storm, according to the National Weather Service.

People quickly took cover as pounding rain, hail and black, foreboding clouds overtook the Wichita metropolitan area. At one point, even the staff members and meteorologists with the National Weather Service near the airport briefly took cover and handed their duties off to the Topeka National Weather Service before the all-clear was sounded.

The tornado did strike three homes near 135th Street West and 55th Street South. The roofs on two homes in the 5000 block of 119th Street West were swept away; the windows were blown out of a third house.

“Luckily, it lifted before it hit the airport,” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter.

According to the National Weather Service, the EF-1 tornado, considered a weak tornado with 80 to 110 mph winds, touched down south of K-42 in southwestern Sedgwick County, where much of the area is still farm land. The storm’s damage path was 4.6 miles with a half-mile swath.

Easter cautioned people to avoid traveling through southwestern Sedgwick County during the Monday morning commute because of downed power lines. He asked commuters coming from Clearwater to Wichita to use either Ridge or Tyler roads.

All three of the damaged homes on 119th Street West were occupied when the tornado struck Sunday, but all the residents were safe when emergency crews arrived, Easter said.

Throughout Wichita, 911 dispatchers were flooded with calls as tree limbs fell along with marble-sized hail and heavy rains.

There was no damage reported at either Mid-Continent Airport or Col. James Jabara Airport, although there were some flights diverted during the height of the storm.

Maize High School was scheduled to have graduation ceremonies on Sunday at Wichita State University’s Koch Arena, but school officials postponed the event as the storm passed through. School officials said the ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

At Bishop Carroll’s graduation ceremony, the graduates had just made it through the “R’s” in walking across the school’s stage when an announcement was made that the audience and graduates had to take cover in the school’s old gymnasium, nicknamed “The Cave.” A priest with a microphone then told the crowd to stay calm and began reciting the Rosary as the crowd joined in.

Storm alerts on people’s cellphones went off at the same time, producing their own subtle version of a tornado siren chorus. Some people checked their phones while saying the Rosary and texting they were safe.

Heavy rain and marble-sized hail continued to fall intermittently Sunday afternoon. Heavy rains were whipped by strong winds as the sky in downtown Wichita turned a midnight black, then green and finally an eerie shade of gray.

By 7 p.m., the sun had come out as Wichita-area residents climbed from basements and began assessing damages.

Tree limbs were down in the College Hill neighborhood and at 47th and Tyler. Houses were struck by lightning in the 3900 block of Lake Ridge and in the 700 block of North Eisenhower. Windows on the west side of The Grove apartment complex at 29th and Oliver were smashed; windows on the east side were undamaged.

In Bel Aire, windows were shattered by large hail, and some homes looked as if the siding had been hit by a ball peen hammer. Some power lines were also reported down in Bel Aire, according to a Sedgwick County dispatcher.

Cowley County reported some power poles were down around Winfield.

Another tornado produced by the same system that roared through Wichita touched down in the rural areas of Lyon County.

“There was considerable minor damage,” said Kevin Darmofal, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

One to 2 inches of rain fell in Wichita and caused some street flooding. A flood warning was issued for eastern Sedgwick County. Mid-Continent Airport reported receiving 1.37 inches of rain.

Expect more of the same on Monday, Darmofal said.

“We’ll be busy, but I think the bulk of the severe weather will be in eastern central to southeast Kansas,” he said. “Wichita has a slight risk for severe weather.”

Contributing: Rick Plumlee, Tim Potter, Molly McMillin and Stan Finger of The Eagle; the Associated Press.

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