'Storm Fury on the Plains' classes emphasize tornadoes’ unpredictability

The Wichita Eagle

If the 2013 tornado season taught weather officials and storm chasers anything, it’s that you can’t always predict what a tornado is going to do.

That’s why National Weather Service officials in Wichita retooled their “Storm Fury on the Plains” presentations for 2014. They’re known informally as “storm spotter training classes,” but anyone is welcome because presenters want residents to know how to respond when severe weather threatens.

The class is “almost back to the basics,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the weather service. “The key thing I’m really stressing is the importance of situational awareness.”

The classes are being held in all 26 counties included in the Wichita branch’s warning coverage area, starting Monday night in Eureka. Two are slated for Wichita: March 6 at Northwest High School and April 12 at Exploration Place.

Sedgwick County Emergency Management has put together a schedule of the presentations for towns around the county as well.

“We have a tendency to become complacent around storms,” Hayes said of Kansans.

That happens, he said, because severe weather is such a basic element of life in the Sunflower State, particularly in the spring and early summer.

“Folks just need to realize that storms do not always react in a typical fashion, and we need to be able to react quickly,” Hayes said.

The deadly El Reno tornado on May 31 was one of several examples of their unpredictability. The large tornado tracked southeast rather than the southwest-to-northeast path that many twisters take.

Then it grew dramatically in a very short time and took a sharp left turn that caught numerous storm chasers by surprise – including veteran researchers Tim Samaras and Paul Young. Those two, along with Tim’s son Paul, were among four chasers killed by the tornado.

The tornado also caught the chase vehicle being used by the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes and his crew and rolled it several times. They were injured but survived.

A few days before the El Reno tornado, a funnel cloud touched down near Bennington in north-central Kansas and grew to more than half a mile wide – and essentially churned in place for nearly an hour.

Josh Wurman, president of the Center for Severe Weather Research, was tracking the tornado and later told the Washington Post the “core flow” region of the twister had winds of 150 mph and higher – or at least EF4 strength on the Enhanced Fujita scale – and that they likely remained over the same geographic area for 15 minutes.

Fortunately, the tornado remained in a rural area, weather officials said. The damage to an urban center would have been devastating.

The El Reno outbreak had a track eerily similar to the path taken by another large tornado 10 days earlier that struck Moore, Okla., and other parts of the Oklahoma City metroplex. The El Reno track was perhaps only a mile from the Moore track earlier in the month, Hayes said.

It was reminiscent of two tornadoes that struck the Wichita area in 1991. An EF5 tornado tore through Haysville, south Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover on April 26, killing 17 people.

Three weeks later, another large tornado formed and moved northeast on a path barely a mile from the April 26 track. That path was more rural, however, and no one was killed.

The incidents, Hayes said, show that tornadoes – like lightning – can strike the same place twice within a short period. That’s why people in Tornado Alley can’t take anything for granted, he said.

The “Storm Fury” presentation includes the vantage point of multiple chasers tracking the Bennington tornado, demonstrating how different the same storm can appear depending on one’s location.

But there are storm attributes people can look for to get a sense of what’s possible with looming severe weather, Hayes said.

“I put so many examples highlighting the top three or four things they need to recognize with each of the storms,” he said. “Look at what it’s telling you.”

People may mistake a shaft of heavy rain for a tornado, he said, or see a band of heavy rain approaching and not realize there’s a tornado behind it. With the advent of weather radios and weather alert applications for smartphones, people have tools available to stay on top of developing weather situations.

And by knowing what to look for, Hayes said, residents can make a decision on whether it’s safe to keep driving if they’re on the road or to take shelter if they’re at home or at the park.

“It’s almost like a safety checklist,” Hayes said of steps officials recommend, depending on where they are when severe weather threatens. “Every situation, you’re going to have a different list” of what to do.

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