Warnings have improved since Andover tornado

Nothing has served public safety more than the dramatic advancement of weather science.
Nothing has served public safety more than the dramatic advancement of weather science.

There is something cruel and unnerving about a forecast of destructive storms coinciding with Tuesday’s 25th anniversary of the deadly Andover tornado. At least the convergence of a tragic anniversary and present danger highlights the need for readiness and the proven results of such preparation.

Measuring F-5 and 500 yards wide, with 260-mph winds along its 69-mile path, the 1991 tornado cut through Haysville, south Wichita and McConnell Air Force Base before reaching Andover. That’s where 13 people in the Golden Spur mobile home park were among the total 17 killed. The monster storm also injured hundreds, forever changing lives as it smashed houses and scattered treasured possessions.

It’s now unthinkable that a suburb the size of Andover in 1991 could have one tornado siren, or that it wouldn’t be working in peak storm season – as was the case that Friday evening. A police officer drove around warning people about the approaching tornado.

As reported in the Sunday Eagle’s anniversary coverage, the aftermath of the devastation motivated Butler County to create an emergency management department. Andover now has multiple sirens as part of a countywide system that can target specific areas.

The violence of the 1991 tornado also became a potent argument for why Wichita’s USD 259 needed to include safe rooms in its 2000 and 2008 bond issues, and prompted smaller districts to make similar upgrades. The lessons learned also led to construction of more public storm shelters in area communities and more basements in new homes.

But nothing has served public safety more than the dramatic advancement of weather science, which now brings early, accurate warnings not only to our radios and TVs but to the web-connected devices in our homes, cars and pockets.

After the Andover tornado, one federal study estimated that it could have killed nearly 100 people if not for the quality of warnings. The sharp contrast between the 95 percent destruction of Greensburg and 11 deaths in the 2007 tornado led to similar conclusions.

By April 2012, the sophisticated forecasting by the National Weather Service and the private firm AccuWeather was such that The Eagle was able to warn readers of “prime” conditions for violent twisters the day before an EF-3 tornado struck south Wichita and Oaklawn – causing damage but no loss of life.

Reports of Tuesday’s potential for severe weather began last week. Even as south-central Kansans pause to reflect on the lives lost on April 26, 1991, and the impressive progress made since in safeguarding the region and its residents, they will need to watch the skies and heed any warnings.