Andover tornado lesson: Stay alert

Seventeen tornadoes with a Fujita Scale rating of 2 or higher touched down April 26, 1991, across Kansas, according to the National Weather Service. Combined, they caused 19 deaths, 239 injuries and more than $534 million in damage.
Seventeen tornadoes with a Fujita Scale rating of 2 or higher touched down April 26, 1991, across Kansas, according to the National Weather Service. Combined, they caused 19 deaths, 239 injuries and more than $534 million in damage. Wichita Eagle file photo

Dick Elder's nightmares are reruns.

They're almost all about the massive tornado that devastated portions of Haysville, Wichita and Andover on April 26, 1991.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of that tornado — and a spring season that shattered numerous perceptions about tornadoes, weather officials and researchers say.

"There's events that, no matter how many years pass, it's like it happened yesterday," said Elder, meteorologist-in-charge at the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service. "The Andover tornado is one of those for me."

The tornado killed 17 people in and around Wichita, injured about 225 and caused more than $250 million in damage — including an estimated $62 million at McConnell Air Force Base.

Elder was working in the Pittsburgh, Pa., office of the weather service in 1990 when he learned he was being transferred to his home state of Kansas to head the Wichita branch. An F5 tornado had slammed into Hesston on March 13, and Elder was relieved.

"For a meteorologist, a tornado of that magnitude usually only occurs once in their career," he remembers telling his wife.

"So what happened the next year?" he asked rhetorically.

Another F5, which came to be known as the Andover tornado.

"It woke me up real quick that even though I'm a native here, I'd better be ready every single, solitary year," Elder said. "It's been the destiny I have followed since that day.

"Every year, I'm preparing for another Andover, and that's what we're preparing the staff for."

'Like a B-1 bomber'

Elder's first spring back in Kansas was an active one.

Strong tornadoes touched down March 26 in Reno County — where an F4 devastated the community of Willowbrook northwest of Hutchinson — and in Cowley County, where a tornado swept through Cambridge.

"My husband, he said it sounded like a B-1 bomber going right over our heads," said Sharian Shelton, whose house on the edge of Cambridge was destroyed. "There was a lot of noise and a lot of debris a-flyin'. It didn't last long."

The Sheltons huddled in the corner of their basement. When they came up the stairs, they discovered their home for the past 18 years had been destroyed.

"We lost a lot of livestock — chickens, rabbits, one mule and one dog," Shelton said.

They were still cleaning up when another tornado touched down exactly a month later. It straddled the March 26 tornado's path for a while before shifting to the northeast and passing about five miles west of Cambridge.

"It didn't get us," Shelton said, "but it got several (houses) just outside of town."

The tornado — which was rated an F4, though weather officials now suspect it should have earned an F5 rating — killed a 29-year-old woman in her mobile home in rural Cowley County northeast of Winfield.

She knew the tornado was coming, family members later said, but it struck before she could seek better shelter.

'It was so, so wrong'

As large as that tornado was, it was all but forgotten because of what happened in and around Wichita.

Several tornadoes were produced by the same super-cell thunderstorm. The most notorious touched down at 5:40 p.m. seven miles northeast of Argonia and began marching northeast, just missing Clearwater but striking portions of Goddard, Haysville, southeast Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and Andover.

It stayed on the ground, gradually losing strength after it left Andover, before finally lifting next to El Dorado Lake.

Tornado warnings were issued well in advance of the tornado hitting any populated areas, and continued to be issued as it moved along.

But Elder said any sense of satisfaction evaporated when he learned the circumstances of how the 17 fatalities occurred.

In every case, he said, they either waited too long to take shelter and were caught out in the open, or chose woefully inadequate shelters for protection.

"I realized we really need to educate people about where safe places are," Elder said. "It just broke my heart to see what actions some people did, thinking they were doing the right thing to save their life, and it was so, so wrong."

An eerie sequel

Just three weeks later, it almost happened again.

A tornado touched down in northern Sumner County and marched in the Andover tornado's path toward Haysville — at one point reaching F3 in strength.

The similarities, Elder said, were "almost eerie."

"It was like a sequel," he said.

The tornado lifted before reaching Haysville, then touched down briefly in southeast Wichita and again next to Andover.

No one was killed, though more damage occurred.

It was the second time that spring that a tornado had mimicked another tornado's path, shattering any perceptions that twisters won't shadow a predecessor.

"That's still somewhat remarkable," said Jon Davies, a severe-weather research meteorologist now based in Kansas City. "You can't just say, 'Well, we had this last year, so it's probably not going to happen for a while.'

"It depends on what Mother Nature really wants to do."

A nagging question

The lesson from the tornadoes of 1990 and 1991, Elder said, is to be prepared for anything when it comes to tornadoes.

Weather officials now stress a simple acronym when it comes to seeking shelter when tornadoes threaten: DUCK.

* Down to the lowest level of a structure, whether a basement or the ground floor.

* Under something sturdy, such as a table.

* Cover yourself with a blanket or mattress to shield against flying debris.

* Keep under shelter until the storm has passed.

Those steps are effective whether people are in a home, apartment or office building, officials say.

"It's a big, nagging question that still bothers a lot of us — how to get people to pay attention to warnings sometimes," Davies said.

Weather officials are working with emergency managers and media representatives to develop language that clearly expresses the seriousness of warnings, with an eye toward getting residents to take appropriate precautions.

"We really need to educate people about where safe places are," Elder said.

In his nightmare, an Andover-like tornado is bearing down on Wichita, and people have no idea what to do or where to go to protect themselves.

"That's been my marching orders for the last 20 years — getting people educated enough to make the proper choice when that comes up... and not think a tornado occurred here 10 years ago and so we never have to worry about another one," Elder said.

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