Weather

Have quiet tornado seasons lulled Kansans into complacency?

A tornado forms just south of McPherson in 2014.
A tornado forms just south of McPherson in 2014. File photo

Tornado Alley has never been this quiet in the Wichita area before.

Forget about tornadoes last year – there were not even any tornado watches issued.

That’s never happened before in the nearly half a century that watch records have been kept. There were only two tornado watches issued for Sedgwick County the year before that, which translates into the lowest two-year total on record.

All of which has weather officials worried that people around Wichita and Kansas will drop their guard when it comes to tornadoes.

As the Sunflower State observes Severe Weather Awareness Week beginning Monday, officials are urging residents not to be lulled into a false sense of security by the calm skies of the past few years.

“It’s human nature,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita. “Many of us have a tendency to become complacent when we’re not faced with it on a day-to-day basis.

“Or we develop the ‘it won’t happen to me’ syndrome.”

Mathematically speaking, the chances of a tornado striking a specific address are pretty small, said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the weather service.

“But it happens to people every year,” Ruthi said.

That’s why residents of Tornado Alley need to prepare for the possibility each spring, he said.

“We do live in the bull’s-eye of severe weather,” Hayes said. “I try to drive that home.”

In his storm spotter training classes – which are free and open to the public – Hayes stresses that Kansas trails only Texas in severe weather events in an average year.

Still, there were only 40 tornadoes in Kansas last year. Many of them were weak “gustnadoes” or land spouts.

“It was pretty pitiful,” Ruthi said of tornado season in southwest Kansas.

To put last year’s number in perspective, Kansas has averaged 100 tornadoes a year over the past 10 years and 80 tornadoes a year over the past 30 years. Those statistics come with a caveat, however: Weather officials doubt more tornadoes are occurring around the state compared to decades ago.

Thanks to storm spotter networks and swarms of storm chasers, tornadoes these days don’t go unnoticed. But 30 or 40 years ago – especially in sparsely populated areas of the state – it’s likely many tornadoes touched down without ever being documented, weather officials say.

Nationwide, there were 888 tornadoes last year – nearly 30 percent below the annual average of 1,253, according to statistics compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The past three years have averaged barely more than 900 tornadoes a year.

This year is off to a sleepy start for tornadoes as well. There have been only one tornado in the entire country in the first half of February and 27 for all of 2015 so far, according to data compiled by the NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center.

At last month’s national storm chaser convention in Denver, Greg Forbes of the Weather Channel said the current atmospheric set-up suggests tornado season will get off to a quiet start before firing up in April.

But AccuWeather vice president Mike Smith said he’s seeing troubling similarities between this winter and 2011, which produced a super-outbreak in the Deep South in April and the deadliest tornado in more than half a century in Joplin, Mo., in May.

“This cold air, when it finally gives way, you’re setting up a lot of potential energy” to feed storms, Smith said.

It was only three years ago that a tornado struck Haysville, Oaklawn and southeast Wichita before moving into Butler County, Hayes said. People don’t just have short attention spans these days, he said, they have short memories.

“I think that’s where society is today,” he said. “We are more into the moment as opposed to the past.”

A strong, well-developed tornado touched down in Harper County 10 days before Christmas.

“It was an impressive storm,” Hayes said.

But when he gave a storm spotter training talk in the area last week, he said, “there are some who didn’t remember that tornado at all.”

That’s why he will continue to stress the importance of awareness and preparation. While it’s information that’s been shared often in years past, for at least some, it will be a valued reminder.

As the tornado in December showed, Hayes said, “It can happen at any moment.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

Tornado safety tips

▪ Develop a plan of action.

▪ Have frequent drills.

▪ In homes and small buildings, go to the basement or the innermost room on the lowest floor (such as a bathroom or closet). Wrap yourself in coats or blankets to protect against flying debris.

▪ In hospitals, schools, factories or shopping centers, go to an interior room on the lowest available floor, but stay away from auditoriums or warehouses with wide-span roofs. Crouch down and cover your head.

▪ Abandon mobile homes if a tornado warning is issued.

▪ Stay away from glass-enclosed locations.

▪ If no suitable structure is nearby, abandon your vehicle and lie flat in the nearest ditch or depression and cover your head. But be mindful of the potential for a flash flood.

Source: National Weather Service

Storm spotter training

Interested in taking a storm spotter training session? The National Weather Service in Wichita offers classes around Kansas. Go to www.crh.noaa.gov/ict/?n=spottertalks for a list of classes.

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