Several tornadoes touched down across central Kansas on Thursday, accompanied by hail as large as tennis balls at times and winds that topped 70 mph.
At one point, there were seven tornado warnings in effect at the same time across the Sunflower State. But almost all of those warnings were prompted by radar-indicated rotation.
Most of the tornadoes that did form as sunset approached were weak and short-lived, weather officials said.
Once again, Barton County was at the epicenter of tornado activity. At least two tornadoes were reported in the same county that was hit on Tuesday night.
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But Donna Zimmerman, public information officer for Barton County, said officials there had not yet received confirmation of damage or that any funnels actually reached the ground.
“We are all headed home” for the night, she said shortly after 7 p.m.
Nine tornadoes were reported across Kansas, including in Stafford, Pawnee, Saline and Barber counties.
The Saline County tornado, which was reported just after 6:30 p.m., was rain-wrapped and seen about a half-mile from the Salina airport, according to Hannah Stambaugh, the emergency management director for Saline County. Power outages, street flooding and large tree limbs down were reported in and around Salina.
A tornado watch originally scheduled to extend to 11 p.m. was canceled early and in stages across the state, including shortly before 8:30 p.m. in Sedgwick County.
Winds topping 70 mph were reported in Saline, Rice and Pratt counties. Hail as large as golf balls and tennis balls was reported in several locations around the state.
Roads were reported covered with water at times in Barton County.
The severe weather threat prompted numerous event postponements in the Wichita metropolitan area and prompted Mark Buck, the superintendent of the Medicine Lodge School District, to send students home early for the day. It was the first time they had done it for a reason other than snow, he said.
The county’s emergency manager, Jerry McNamar, asked him to sit in on his call with the National Weather Service, after which Buck thought: “Oh, that’s not sounding good.”
So he called his transportation director and they got started on sending kids home. It’s one of the largest districts in the state, covering about 750 miles. After seeing tornadoes like the one in Greensburg 10 years ago, he said, it was better to be safe than sorry.
The weather forecast also drew stormchasers from all over the country to Kansas and Oklahoma. Many were in central Kansas, while others had their eye on northern Oklahoma and storms that seemed destined to track into the Wichita metropolitan area.
The Casey’s convenience store in Medicine Lodge became a convergence point for storm chasers.
Alden German just graduated from the atmospheric science program at the University of Kansas, which his storm-chasing partner for the day, Shane Martin, is still in. They’ve both been on a few chases before, but this is their first together. They hope chasing storms will help them get TV jobs as weathermen.
Early in the evening, German said, they planned on staying around Pratt and Medicine Lodge because the areas in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle that showed the highest risk would be overrun with chasers.
“If you have a whole bunch of chasers in the same area, that makes things riskier, you have heavier traffic on rural roads,” German said.
They have floodlights on the top of their SUV, caution lights on the back, a computer hooked up to Wi-Fi to watch the radar and a full video camera mounted to the windshield.
Behind them in the parking lot, Michael Koch, who comes from New York for two months every year, had a metal screen that overhangs his windshield several feet so that he can keep driving even in heavy hail without risk to his windshield.
Hadrian Predock flew out from Santa Monica, Calif., to Colorado College to pick up his son, Nico, 20, on his last day of college for the year. Since 2008, they’ve gone out on more than a dozen chases, including last year in Dodge City. They play it pretty safe, Hadrian said, but he was afraid the tornado was going to hit Dodge City last year.
Nico is the one who studies weather in school, but Hadrian said he has loved weather since he was a kid. They’ve gotten a lot better over the years at understanding the models, he said, and using the cameras and video cameras needed to capture storms.
“For us, it’s completely an aesthetic pursuit; we’re here for the beauty of nature and weather,” Hadrian said. “It’s exotic and rare and beautiful and it comes out of nothing and develops into an intense event in a short period of time.”
As sunset neared, the night had delivered little of what stormchasers crave. There were 17 tornadoes reported in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
More severe weather is expected on Friday in southern Kansas, though weather officials say the tornado threat is not as significant as it was on Thursday.