The tornado that slammed into the Wichita metro area 25 years ago on Tuesday should have killed nearly 100 people, a study later showed.
That only 17 lives were lost, weather officials say, is a testimony to both the quality of the warnings issued and the wisdom of Kansans to heed them.
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The low death toll is “a testament to the people and their savviness in weather,” said Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita. “They understand when they need to go to shelter.”
The radar in the Wichita office, which dated back to the 1950s, was not functioning that day. Utilizing a new Doppler radar from a nearby branch in Oklahoma, meteorologists were able to get a better indication of the storms’ strengths and issue timely warnings.
The tornado touched down at 5:57 p.m. two miles south-southeast of Clearwater in Sumner County, then churned north-northeast into Haysville and south Wichita. The weather service issued a tornado warning at 6:09 p.m. for eastern Sedgwick County, saying a tornado was on the ground in the vicinity of Clearwater and “another tornado was reported near Haysville.”
They were the same tornado reported from different vantage points, but meteorologists didn’t realize that at the time. A tight stovepipe as it plowed through McConnell Air Force Base, the tornado widened and strengthened as it moved into rural areas of eastern Sedgwick County.
At 6:30 p.m., the weather service issued another tornado warning, saying the tornado was in southeast Wichita and moving northeast at 35 miles an hour. Augusta and Andover, the warning said, “are in the path of this storm.”
Television stations weren’t doing nonstop weather coverage then. Late in the 6 p.m. KSN newscast, meteorologist Mike Smith shared “late information” about damage at McConnell and south Wichita, adding that southeast Wichita, Rose Hill and Andover were in the path of the tornado.
Four of the 17 people killed by the tornado lived in a housing development between Wichita and Andover. That’s about where Earle “Duke” Evans’ video of the tornado begins as he stood at the entrance to Terradyne Country Club in Andover.
Evans’ video drew a crowd of meteorologists at the Wichita branch of the weather service recently. Though they had all seen it at some point over the years, the images were still riveting.
“Amazing,” Hayes said as he watched debris flying through the air. “Each one of those is a projectile that could take somebody’s life.”
Based on quick calculations, Hayes and meteorologist Paul Howerton figured that the tornado would take 30 seconds to a minute to pass over a particular point by the time it reached Andover.
Think of that, Hayes said: A tornado hitting your house for an entire minute.
Weather officials studied Evans’ video of the Andover tornado for years, noting the small vortices that rotated around the main cyclone. Researchers would later confirm that large tornadoes can feature multiple vortices inside the main circulation, and Hayes last week pondered aloud how many — if any — such vortices the Andover tornado featured.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that, without warnings, the tornado that struck on April 26 would have killed 94 people, said Smith, who is now with AccuWeather.
That tornado — and the Hesston tornado of the previous year — were turning points in the history of tornado research in the U.S., Hayes said, because videos shot of those twisters brought home how much more work needed to be done.
“It made us realize that we need to delve more into this subject,” he said. “We’re still learning. There’s still a whole lot we don’t understand.”