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Severe weather

Eureka, Part 2

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Adrianne Stapleford captured this and several other images of the 2018 Eureka tornado touching down outside her workplace at Orscheln Farm and Home.

When we took the air June 26 for severe weather coverage on KVOE, there really wasn’t much thought we’d be dealing with any tornadic activity.

Boy, did that change.

Scattered storms developed south of Emporia and slid southeast that evening, developing rapidly enough to cause severe thunderstorm warnings for Greenwood and southern Lyon counties around 7 pm. Once we got rolling with our coverage, though, there was one storm rapidly intensifying near Eureka. Sean Thornton, who was running the board and hails from Eureka, and I immediately started thinking back to July 7, 2016, when the Greenwood County seat was hit by another tornado. We weren’t looking at a repeat, were we?

Unfortunately, we were.

In rapid succession, central Greenwood County went from a severe thunderstorm warning to a tornado warning to confirmation of a tornado on the ground to a radar debris signature.  Our hearts just sank.

Further confirmation was rather quick in coming. The 2016 twister hit the town from the northwest, causing some damage near the golf course and then rooting in northwest Eureka as it churned to the southeast near Greenwood County Hospital and Eureka Junior-Senior High School. Based on the storm’s motion, which was almost identical on radar, it appeared likely the tornado damage path would be parallel to the 2016 storm — if not almost directly on top of it.  Instead, we came to learn later the tornado formed in southwest Eureka and apparently cut across the path of the parent storm. That’s a rarity to say the least. Now there’s at least some evidence of a second, smaller, satellite tornado touching down around the same time of the original funnel.

Unlike the 2016 storm, this twister impacted downtown Eureka and also slammed into the southern half of the junior-senior high school campus. Unfortunately, there is now a big X on Eureka from the two damage paths, and it’s very close to the school grounds.

I was four when Omaha had its “big one,” so until I covered the Reading tornado I really didn’t have a personal sense of exactly what a tornado can do to a smaller community — even though I’ve seen the damage through our TV screen. It’s a lot different in person. Eureka already had a good jump on the cleanup by the time media was able to tour some of the worst damage areas the following afternoon, but the scope of the disaster — shifted homes, smashed homes, chewed-up tractor trailers, chairs in streets, mangled fencing, buckled bleachers and all those broken tree limbs — well, it gets to you as a reporter…who lives 45 miles away.

The thing (well, one of several things) I can’t imagine is living through a tornado — and in Eureka’s case, getting hit twice in a handful of years. Having talked with several city and county officials, the area had just finished its official 2016 tornado-related efforts about a month before the 2018 storm. Lives that were finally stitched back together were suddenly ripped apart again.

Because of that and because of the unlikelihood of federal reimbursement dollars, the emphasis on — and impact of — the recovery effort has been remarkable. As was the case with the ’16 tornado, volunteers were trying to mobilize before the 2018 tornado had even dissipated. Help from neighboring counties and the state came roaring in as well, so much so that the cleanup effort is well ahead of the 2016 pace and, if nothing else, the foundation for getting back to normal will be in place soon. And having the annual Party in the Park to look forward to probably helped as well through the sense of the familiar and routine that we come to underestimate until it’s blown away.

In the days following the storm, we learned last month’s tornado was at least the fourth to hit the community since National Weather Service records began in 1950. The ones in 2016 and 2018 were, by far, the worst to hit the town.

Thoughts and prayers have gone out to Eureka since the tornado. More importantly, so has action. So often these days, a response stops at thoughts and prayers. Community disasters are an exception, and it’s gratifying to see so many people linking arms to help. I’m also looking forward to returning in a few months and seeing the progress Eureka will make after its second tornado this decade.



Stormchaser Fail

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Tim Marshall

Fifteen years ago, I had my first stormchasing experience as part of the KVOE News Team.

It did not go well.

Storms developed the afternoon of May 8, 2003, near Emporia and pushed rapidly — I mean 60-70 mph rapidly — to the northeast. The supercells had organized well enough to drop a tornado in western Osage County within a few minutes of passing Emporia. And eager to prove myself to my relatively new bosses, I said I’d go chase.

OK, get this straight. The storms already have a roughly 20-mile head start. They were moving at cross angles to the regional road network at up to 70 mph. They were moving away from Emporia.

And I said I’d go after them.

Yeah, right. Not a smart move on my part.

And it didn’t take long for a Hail Mary stormchaser moment to go thoroughly wrong, although my safety was never a concern. I had been on the road for less than 20 minutes and losing ground with every mile. I made a fateful turn from a gravel road to a paved road in a last-ditch effort to make up some ground. Shortly after making the turn, I began hearing a grumbling sound underneath my car. For gravel, it would have been no big deal. On pavement, that sound only meant one thing: a flat tire.

I cussed — a lot — and got to work changing the flat.

My simmering blood pressure climbed closer to boiling when I learned the supercell that dropped a twister near Reading had also birthed a second, stronger, much-longer-lived tornado as I was straining against the lug nut wrench. I admit I ignored a few phone calls from the station (and flat missed some others) as I finally got the tire changed.

Thankfully, the tornado missed Lyndon, although it gave town residents quite the show as it passed the town. All I could think at the time, however, was this was my chance to contribute to our storm coverage…and instead I was stuck on the side of an unfamiliar road, bringing back with me nothing more than a sad stormchaser fail story.

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Severe weather coverage: The balancing act continues

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So far, it’s 0-for-2 on significant severe weather chances for the Kansas Flint Hills this spring.

Last Friday, as you see with the Storm Prediction Center graphic, the day started with an enhanced severe weather risk for most of Kansas. That risk eventually developed — largely, not completely — in western Kansas, but the risk here waned because of what happened in the second enhanced risk area across a good chunk of north Texas. End result? You can have all the dynamics in the world screaming supercells and tornadoes, but if you don’t have the moisture to work with, none of that’s going to happen.

The risk was actually moderate on April 8, increasing from slight and continuing through enhanced as the day progressed, but a strong capping inversion layer held down convection for most of the day and also kneecapped almost all storm activity if thermals did poke through. There were several severe weather reports to our south and a few tornadoes, but I later told several people that was as much nothing as I had ever seen with a moderate risk area.

Two similar but different situations with just about the same meteorological result.

The season has gotten fairly active after a very slow start, and the business of severe weather meteorology has certainly followed suit. In case you haven’t been paying attention the past three decades or so, you can pretty well see just how prevalent that business is.

I can’t speak for private companies, but I can tell you our local broadcast department takes the weather’s role in our daily lives very seriously, so when severe weather is a possibility we let you know. We try to do so (emphasis on the word “try”) in such a way so you can gauge the level of risk without sending you into a tizzy about what might be coming. And we try to give as much lead time as possible. As far as I’m concerned, it’s civic duty. And it’s one not to be taken trivially or to be replaced by the rush for listens or website clicks, although as often as we remind people to get local information from us and not other prospective media sources I can certainly understand that’s how it may seem.

In a way, we untrained weather broadcasters have become very good information regurgitants, especially in the days from the Palm Sunday Outbreak (1965), original Super Outbreak (1974), Omaha (1975), Wichita Falls and Grand Island (1980) to Moore (1999 and multiple times since then), Dixie Outbreak (2011), Joplin (2011) and El Reno (2013). We take what we generally know about severe weather situations and meld that with the information from the National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center and, in our case, WIBW-TV to give you a sense of what you maybe facing as much as a week out. And as you can see, sometimes things pan out as expected. Sometimes they still don’t.

At least now there are very few instances where we can’t say we weren’t warned anymore. That certainly wasn’t the case up through the early 1950s, when the approach was to say as little as possible so as not to panic the masses, and even into the 1970s — albeit to a progressively lesser extent — as tornado knowledge slowly increased.

Unfortunately, the risk always exists that people will start tuning out severe weather forecasts when things don’t develop as expected in our back yard. We as humans have a tendency of compartmentalizing information very well, and in severe weather we can brush off the fact that a forecast was overall about 90 percent correct if that remaining 10 percent happened in our neck of the woods.

The last four forecasts were off. It’ll never happen here.

I have been a severe weather nut, as I’ve blogged previously, since the Omaha twister of 1975. Since getting into this field almost 20 years ago, it has meant the world to me to make sure what I say — and now that I’m running the news department, what we say  — is both factually accurate and reflective of what the situation entails, whether we are dealing with maybe one storm dumping pea-sized hail or an entire community beginning to sift through the wreckage of a significant tornado.

My takeaway from the last two severe weather chances is we in the media, myself included, have to be mindful of the balance needed in broadcasting severe weather situations. Especially the way media is developing these days, it’s now way too easy to overhype. Once that happens, you run an increasingly enhanced, moderate or high risk of people tuning out right before Mother Nature rolls out that dreaded worst-case scenario.

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