I spent decades as a newspaper reporter and still do freelance pieces on occasion - including the one I'm sharing below for those who do not have a subscription to the paper in which it appeared. I'm doing it as a public service, since it includes information on safety and preparation for the possibility of severe weather. Prepare a safety plan that works for you...
While the recent record-shattering invasion of arctic air may be still fresh on many people’s minds, some meteorologists are taking a closer look at what spring will be like.
What they’re seeing is a bit unsettling: the atmospheric conditions across the northern hemisphere for this spring closely resembles 2007 and 2011 – years that produced rare EF5 tornadoes, the strongest on the Enhanced Fujita Scale used to measure the strength of twisters.
A record 216 tornadoes touched down from Canada to Texas on April 27, 2011, including four EF5s. The outbreak claimed 348 lives. A month later, another EF5 tornado swept through Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people and injuring more than 1,000 in the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since records began officially being kept in 1950.
In Kansas, a tornado nearly 2 miles wide essentially wiped Greensburg off the map on the night of May 4, 2007, killing 11 people and injuring almost 70 others. The tornado was the first EF5 recorded under the revised Fujita Scale and the last tornado in the state to earn the scale’s highest rating.
That history is what makes some Kansas officials nervous about 2021.
“I’m definitely concerned about what this storm season has in store for us,” said Keri Korthals, emergency management director for Butler County, which was hit by the last F5 in Kansas prior to Greensburg, on April 26, 1991.
That tornado killed 17 people – 13 of them in the Golden Spur Mobile Home Park – and led to the creation of an emergency management department in Butler County.
“Historically in Kansas, it seems like our weather likes to lull us into complacency before bringing out the big sticks,” Korthals said in an email response to questions. “It gives us a string of mild seasons that make us forget how bad it can get, and then…”
Last year was astoundingly quiet for Kansas and Tornado Alley as a whole. Only 17 tornadoes touched down in the Sunflower State in 2020, the lowest total in more than four decades.
For the first time since official records began 70 years ago, not a single tornado touched down in the 26 counties of southeastern Kansas included in the warning area of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service. Not only were there no tornadoes, there were no tornado watches issued by the Wichita office.
To put the sleepy 2020 in perspective, Kansas has averaged 94 tornadoes a year over the past decade and 89 over the past 30 years. The Sunflower State hadn’t logged such a low tornado total since 14 in 1976 and 16 in 1977.
“I’ve heard multiple people use the phrase ‘we’re so overdue,’” Korthals said. “And that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck a little bit, wondering if we’re to the ‘big stick’ year yet.”
The record-setting cold spell that began to finally ease last weekend “isn’t helping that prickly feeling,” she said.
“And given that we’re still in our COVID response phase, that makes it even more unsettling, since that adds an extra layer of difficulty to sheltering, responding and so on if we do have a bad season,” Korthals said.
A DIFFERENT VIEW
Despite the correlations to years that produced rare top-of-the-scale tornadoes, AccuWeather is not predicting an unusually active year for Kansas. Instead, just as in 2011, the southeastern U.S. is projected to see a surge in tornado totals.
High pressure linked to drought in the southwestern U.S. will spread into western Kansas this spring, pushing storm systems east of Kansas, said Paul Pastelok, a long-range forecaster for AccuWeather.
“There may not be a lot of precipitation for your area when the fronts come through,” Pastelok said in an email response to questions. “I am leaning toward Dixie Alley, rather than Tornado Alley, this spring. Moist air from the Gulf of Mexico may have a hard time consistently reaching back into the Plains this spring.”
A CAUTION AGAINST COMPLACENCY
But forecasters and emergency management officials caution against complacency in Kansas. All it would take is “one big one” to hit a populated area and make this year a bad one, said Jeff Hutton, warning coordination meteorologist for the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service.
“I would bet it will be plenty active in Kansas as far as severe weather,” Hutton said in an email response to questions. “For the number of tornadoes? That will all be completely dependent on each individual severe weather day. There is no scientific skill in predicting that number.”
There was no shortage of strong thunderstorms in Kansas last year, Hutton said. What was missing were the final ingredients needed to initiate tornadoes.
Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Julie Stimson urged residents to not take tornado season lightly.
“The thought of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes is not on the forefront of many minds,” Stimson said in an e-mail response to questions. “With the recent cold weather and on-going pandemic, the thought of a tornado striking the area is an unnerving thought — exactly why we must begin preparing now.
“We have already seen major tornado events in the U.S. in the midst of the pandemic, demonstrating the urgency to prepare simultaneously to the threat of severe weather while continuing COVID precautions,” she said.
Kansas will observe Severe Weather Awareness Week this week, Stimson said, making this a good time to review what steps you’ll take in the event violent weather threatens.
This includes sorting out where to take shelter if you’re at work or school, updating your emergency supplies kit, and ensuring you have multiple ways of receiving emergency alert notifications — even during power outages.
HOW TO BE PREPARED
Now is a good time to review and safeguard important documents that can help start recovery right after a disaster:
- Review and update insurance policies
- Take photos of valuable belongings you may want to include in an insurance claim
- Create a list of medications, allergies and medical equipment
- Locate and safeguard birth certificates, passports and social security cards
- Have current digital photos of loved ones readily available
- Designate an out-of-town contact who might be able to help you reconnect with loved ones
- Have a reserve cell phone charger
- Create an emergency contact list.
- Stay informed on current weather forecasts and conditions through local media, social media, and the National Weather Service-Wichita office website: https://www.weather.gov/ict/.
Because of COVID-19, stay current on advice and restrictions from your state and local public health authorities as it may affect your actions and available resources and facilities.
If you do have to evacuate to an emergency shelter, protect yourself and others by
- Practice social distancing from other people outside your household
- Follow local shelter COVID 19 precautions: wash hands often, cover coughs and sneezes and follow mask-wearing policies.
- Follow disaster shelter policies and procedures designed to protect everyone in the shelter, especially those who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions.
- If you feel sick when you arrive at the shelter or start to feel sick while sheltering, tell shelter staff immediately
Source: Sedgwick County Emergency Management