'Miracle at Greensburg'

Warnings, death toll of two tornadoes compared

02/11/2010 12:00 AM

02/23/2011 12:30 PM

When authorities learned a tornado nearly two miles wide had leveled most of Greensburg on the night of May 4, 2007, they expected the death toll to be massive. They ordered 200 body bags and requested refrigerated trucks to store the dead until they could properly be taken care of.

But the strongest tornado to touch down in the United States in nearly a decade killed only nine people in Greensburg that night, despite destroying 95 percent of the town and badly damaging the rest.

"The death toll should have been much higher," said Mike Smith, president of WeatherData Inc., the Wichita-based subsidiary of AccuWeather.

Accurate forecasting, effective communication of the threat and residents taking appropriate safety measures to protect themselves all combined to minimize the number of deaths and injuries, Smith said.

Smith calls it the "Miracle at Greensburg," which he has turned into a presentation that he will give at the quarterly meeting of the local chapter of the American Meteorological Society today.

He put the presentation together — debuting it in Greensburg last October — to "express everyone's appreciation for the work they do in saving lives," Smith said of forecasters.

"These people don't get anywhere near as much recognition and appreciation as they deserve," he said.

Smith has written a book, "Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather," which will be published in May.

It is part autobiography, part explanation of how the evolution of forecasting and radar technology have saved thousands of lives.

The Greensburg tornado is a vivid example, Smith said.

In a startling number of ways, the tornado mirrored the Udall tornado of May 25, 1955 — the deadliest tornado in Kansas history.

"They are as identical as two F5s are ever going to be," Smith said.

Both struck after sunset. Both were about 1.7 miles wide. Both followed tracks that were almost due north. Both had wind speeds in excess of 200 mph.

And both obliterated small Kansas towns.

Though tornadoes had been reported in Oklahoma earlier that evening in 1955 — one of which slammed into Blackwell and killed 20 people — a new forecast warning of possible tornadoes didn't reach Wichita television stations until after the late newscasts were well under way.

Residents of Udall went to bed believing the threat had passed.

That illusion was shattered when the tornado struck at 10:35 p.m. It killed 77 people in Udall and five children from the same family on a nearby farm.

By comparison, a tornado warning was issued for Greensburg and Kiowa County more than a half-hour before the tornado struck the town.

Mike Umscheid, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's Dodge City bureau, issued a "tornado emergency" for Greensburg — a rarely used alert issued for specific cities in danger — 10 minutes before the tornado struck.

"If we project the death rate on the no-warning Udall tornado onto Greensburg, there would have been 240 people killed," Smith said. "The warning system that night saved over 200 lives."

Smith said the town's mayor and a county commissioner have since told him that if the death toll had topped 200, Greensburg would have died, too.

"We not only saved lives," Smith said, "we saved the town."

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