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.
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.
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.
Friday’s tornadoes to batter the Oklahoma City metro area were bad enough already. You had a mother and child being sucked out of their vehicle, thrown and killed. Noted Weather Channel on-camera meteorologist Mike Bettes’ team was thrown and rolled 200 yards but survived.
And now we learn that pioneering storm chaser/researcher Tim Samaras, his son, Paul, and his partner, Carl Young, were all killed in the El Reno twister.
I think a lot of people are going to dismiss what the Samaras TWISTEX project was doing — I’ve already seen the headline, “You Play With Fire, You Get Burned” — and a lot of people already question the sanity of what Samaras and fellow chasers/researchers like Reed Timmer, Sean Casey and others are doing when they try to get into the paths of such monsters, if not right inside the beasts themselves. I’m torn because the ground-level research side is apparently crucial to figuring out why tornadoes form (or don’t), and unfortunately the only way to get that is by going into harm’s way. And that’s the flip side. Having chased for years before being moved to the co-anchor chair at KVOE (and having several small funnel clouds dance overhead in various episodes)…if you don’t know what you’re getting into before you chase, you’re either very, very naive or very, very stupid.
And even if you do know what you’re doing, you can’t be prepared for everything. Mother Nature threw a massive curveball at a host of stormchasers and people stuck on OKC-area highways on Friday when the twister got sucked into the mesocyclone, by all accounts, meaning it turned sharply to the northeast and likely strengthened.
The next two graphics show the tornado’s track at the likely point where it met the Samaras vehicle and the slew of chasers in the immediate vicinity of the El Reno twister.
What makes this so unnerving to everybody in the severe weather community is because it was this crew that perished. Tim Samaras was so careful with his approach to each individual situation (during the last two years of the Discovery Channel’s Stormchasers show, he was criticized for being too cautious). Their deaths are believed to be the first for a chase team in action. We all thought it would be the less-experienced, the yahoos who call in to National Weather Service offices saying they have wedge tornadoes bearing down when there is no chance of any tornadic activity, the idiots who block highways and fight with law enforcement or rescue personnel trying to save lives. The last people we thought would be on the list of chase deaths — let alone being the first on the list — were Tim, Paul and Carl.
The aura of invincibility among storm chasers as very much like that of teenagers. That aura has now been shattered, much like a tornado-thrown 2-by-4 going through a glass window. If it hasn’t something’s wrong. Because this will happen again with a bigger, more powerful tornado taking out more storm chasers and researchers. It may not be for years, but this will happen again.
Those of us in Tornado Alley can be prepared for activity like what we got across the Kansas Flint Hills on Sunday — basically a host of EF-0 or EF-1 tornadoes that didn’t cause a ton of widespread damage.
I don’t care if you are a Tornado Alley veteran or not. Nothing can prepare you for what hit Moore, Okla., shortly after 3 p.m. May 20.
Block upon block of what once was, now blasted into kindling. Two schools and a hospital ripped apart. Thousands of lives shredded. Dozens of dead. Dozens.
This isn’t supposed to happen in 2013.
It wasn’t supposed to happen in 1999, either, when Moore was hit by arguably the strongest tornado to date in American history. Winds were estimated at 318 mph, one mph shy of being the only F-6 ever.
Forty-four died in 1999. And then Moore was hit in 2003. And again Monday.
How shellshocked must you be now if you live in Moore? If you live in the Plains, especially Oklahoma and Texas, you know what you’re in for when winter turns to spring. But Monday’s storm and EF-4s and EF-5s are on such a different level, such a different plane, that it’s hard to wrap your mind around such total devastation even from afar. It must be unimaginable to deal with when it’s your home, your school, your workplace, your favorite restaurants.
Phrases like “our hearts go out to the victims” and “say a prayer for the victims” may not do much if anything to comfort those whose lives have been wrenched apart in 200 mph winds, but they are true.
Our hearts do go out to those of you in Moore, Okla. And we are praying like mad you never have to go through this again.
Back when I wrote “Twistering the Night Away,” I knew there was a risk of severe weather for Sunday, May 19. Officially, the damage locally will be categorized as minor, but the activities of the day should remind people of just how fast a severe weather situation can change.
Sunday, May 12
The start of Mother’s Day indicates a chance of storms all week beginning May 15. The prospect of heavy rain is mentioned, especially for Wednesday, but any severe risk is limited to the upcoming weekend. However, the Storm Prediction Center mentions “some severe potential” for Saturday, May 18 and Sunday, May 19 — with the greatest threat for Sunday. SPC also hints outlook areas (the slight, moderate and high risk areas) could be issued for “multiple consecutive days.
Monday, May 13
Short-term, the forecast still calls for thunderstorms and heavy on Wednesday, but Thursday and Friday are now dry and Wednesday’s rain chances have dropped noticeably. Longer-term, the SPC issues a risk area for Saturday, saying the models agree better for activity Saturday than for Friday or Sunday.
Tuesday, May 14
Wednesday’s rain chances are done. Thursday and Friday look to be dry. However, it now appears the Midwest could well see two days of severe weather. The SPC says Saturday’s event would be pushed north of original projections into Nebraska, and it sets a possible Sunday event across the eastern fifth of Kansas along with parts of Missouri and Iowa. Isolated tornadoes are possible both days.
Wednesday, May 15
Troubling trends for east central Kansas, according to the SPC, which has extended its forecast for Saturday further south — back to where it was Monday — and the Sunday risk is now further west of its original map.
Thursday, May 16:
Well, what do you know. Day 2 (Saturday) is now pushed northwest into central Nebraska and south-central South Dakota. SPC continues to mention isolated tornadoes for Sunday. Now it mentions “very large hail” as a concern.
Friday, May 17
SPC issues a wide slight risk area for Sunday, and while it doesn’t mention a possible upgrade in words it does give a 30-percent risk percentage almost across the slight risk area. It also hatches the area, meaning a greater potential for a significant severe weather event within 25 miles of a given point. A cap, or air layer where temperatures increase with height instead of decrease, will help suppress any updrafts…but only for a while before it breaks. Hail larger than tennis balls is a possibility. And “strong tornadoes” are mentioned as a concern by the SPC, although the National Weather Service says large hail is the main concern at the moment.
So, in other words, Sunday is not looking good. And we have graduations all over the place Sunday afternoon.
Saturday, May 18, 12:54 a.m.
Moderate risk issued for the day west of Interstate 135.
Moderate risk also issued for Sunday affecting the eastern half of Kansas and decent chunks of neighboring states to the north, south and east. SPC still calling for hail the size of tennis balls or larger and now is looking for a cluster of tornadoes in southeast Kansas and central Oklahoma. Possibility of severe weather across the Sunday moderate risk area is now at 45 percent.
National Weather Service Topeka office says storms are possible in east central Kansas by late evening. Severe risk unknown, but the main show is designated as central Kansas.
Little change in SPC’s Sunday outlook other than to say the projected shear and instability will support strong tornadoes.
Storms erupt in central Kansas and push east, prompting tornado watches and supplemental watches for Morris and Chase counties in our area.
Tornado watch issued for Lyon and several surrounding counties. Main reason is low-level shear. Strong storms now enter KVOE listening area in far west Morris and Chase counties; line stretches southwest to Wichita and continues to backbuild as storms push northeast.
Line begins breaking up and thinning out, right before a severe thunderstorm warning is issued for Morris County.
Line of storms is down to showers with embedded thundershowers. Ride home is soupy.
Sunday, May 19, 1 a.m.
SPC Day 2 (Monday) outlook effectively pushes the core risk area for hail and tornadoes southeast of the KVOE listening area. There is a slight risk from Elmdale to Topeka and on southeast, but it’s clear now. For the Flint Hills, the main show is today.
SPC outlook calling for strong tornadoes and hail up to baseballs — if the capping inversion blows up as expected. Main tornado risk basically from US-75 to the east, with wind from Emporia to the east and hail from K-177 eastward. Timing is adjusted about an hour later than first expected.
Our dog, Holly, insists on enhancing our crop of poopgrass, so I let her out. It’s already humid outside. It’s sunny. The wind is howling out of the southeast, stretching the flag of the nearby Baptist church. Mother Nature is greeting us with one hand to shake and the other behind her back with the first two fingers crossed.
Weather Channel severe weather gurus Mike Bettes and Dr. Greg Forbes are shown in Wichita with videos from Saturday night and their Tor.Con indices — 6 or 7 for much of Kansas. Forbes and Bettes are then on TWC in Salina a half-hour later. Amazing, the magic of TV.
I check the latest SPC Day 1 outlook. Looks like storm initiation will be between 1-2 p.m. Just in time for dance recital. Great.
Storm Prediction Center issues Tornado Watch No. 181 for almost the entire eastern half of Kansas until 10 p.m.
Day 1 outlook says cap has eroded across Oklahoma, with storms developing and heading into a warm, moist and unstable atmosphere across eastern Kansas. Long-lived supercells are expected, but strong tornadic activity depends on whether storms can “couple” with the moist boundary layer. Severe storm approaches west edge of Wichita with quarter- and half-dollar-sized hail but looks like it will pass to the west. Scattered showers developing in west Chase and Morris counties.
Rapidly rotating wall cloud noticed near Milton, a small town south of Wichita. Tornado warning issues shortly thereafter for Sedgwick, Sumner and Kingman counties.
Unconfirmed — and brief — tornado touchdown reported near Viola, Kan. Storm begins curling to the right, taking it more towards Wichita proper.
Storms start to get rooted in the atmosphere across extreme eastern Morris and western Wabaunsee counties. More touchdowns reported near Viola and Clearwater. KVOE spotters told to come in for positioning.
Massive tornado reported on the ground near Mid-Continent International. NWS Wichita staffers take cover shortly afterward. Debris ball, where storm debris can be seen on radar up to 5,000 or 10,000 feet or higher, is noted a few minutes later.
Power poles reported downed in Wichita.
Severe storm warning issued for northeast Wabaunsee, followed quickly by a tornado warning for central Butler County.
Debris noted near Wellington, just before trained spotter confirms rain-wrapped funnel and persistent wall cloud near the town.
Tree, outbuilding and power pole damage confirmed in Wichita. Damage doesn’t seem consistent with statements of a wedge on the ground. Torn ado warnings spread to nearby Butler County and re-fire for Sumner, Sedgwick and Harper counties as storm cluster finally starts significant movement to the northeast. KVOE is now well into wall-to-wall severe weather coverage, with Roger Hartsook at Emporia High and Kyle Thompson originally set to go to the I-35/Merchant Street interchange but shifted south to the Municipal Airport. Ryan Schmidt, Scott Hayes, Charlie Allen and Jake Ryan are all in studio fielding phone calls and monitoring for any engineering issues.
Northwest Chase County now in severe thunderstorm warning as storm cluster grows in size to the north. Additional warning issued shortly thereafter for southeast Chase and northwest Greenwood counties. Main cluster now a line and starting to bow noticeably to the east, with lead edge approaching Saffordville.
National Weather Service Topeka office issues severe thunderstorm warning for Lyon County. Initial thought is 70-mph winds and penny-sized hail will be the peak concerns. Bow echo now prominent on KVOE’s WeatherTAP.com radar.
Reports come in of quarter-sized hail near Strong City. Multiple reports of heavy rain in Lyon County. National Weather Service Wichita office starts canceling western counties from tornado watch.
Severe storm warning now impacts northwest Lyon County and eastern Wabaunsee County.
Kyle calls in from the Municipal Airport reporting a funnel touchdown nearby — and, later, he would say near him. During his report, civil defense sirens begin screaming in Emporia. Seconds later, NWS Topeka issues a tornado warning for northwest Lyon County. Touchdown is brief but effective, destroying a barn and partially de-roofing a house. Scramble is on full-bore in studio to field and relay all the listener and Storm Team spotter reports.
Before 6 p.m.
Reports of tornado or tornado-like damage are called in as photos start streaming in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Power lines and a barn are reported hit about three miles northwest of Emporia, while trees are twisted off and a roof is reported damaged in the far southeast corner of town. Storm damage is also reported near Reading, which was sliced open by an EF-3 tornado two years ago almost to the day.
Tornado warning canceled for Lyon County. Cleanup starts almost immediately at Roads 110 and J, where the first damage was reported on air, and also in southeast Emporia, where eyewitnesses would ultimately report a second touchdown. On-air coverage continues as bow echo starts to re-bow and continue shoving off to the east.
Coffey, Osage counties added to severe storm warning list. Severe storms start firing in central Kansas, prompting a new wave of warnings as storms initially look like they could impact KVOE listeners late in the evening.
Wave of listener damage reports appears to be cresting. Southern Greenwood County re-warned.
KVOE signs off. I start news stories for on-air Monday and for KVOE.com. Ryan heads to the 700 block of South Weaver for damage assessment, pictures and interviews.
Kyle returns from stops at the airport and the 1500 block of Road 205, the second immediate report of damage — and lets us know just how close he was to the twister. According to Kyle, the tornado touched down less than a mile away from him and former Municipal Airport manager Don Tevis, lifted and came down almost to ground before dissipating. Not bad for his first time as a KVOE spotter. Dangerous — highly dangerous — but not bad.
Quick coverage plan finalized with hourly updates through 9 p.m. in addition to our normal overnight headlines.
Tornado warnings issued for Chataqua, Cowley and Elk counties.
First update. Choppy but it capsulates what we had.
Ryan calls from southeast Emporia. Considering he didn’t have a recorder — I left mine at home and Roger took Ryan’s — we work a pair of makeshift cell phone interviews for later. Ryan then returns to start processing our Photo Showcase.
Lyon County Emergency Management Coordinator Rick Frevert joins us live, noting scattered damage from the airport to Reading, all but confirming the second touchdown in southeast Emporia and mentioning there is no way Lyon County would qualify for federal or state relief because the damage won’t hit minimum threshholds. As most everybody takes a deep breath here, tornado warnings are sounded for Allen, Woodson and Wilson counties.
Wrap-up stories finished for KVOE.com. Hail the sizes of tennis balls and baseballs falls across southeast Kansas with tornado warnings still in play.
NWS Wichita gives preliminary rating to twister near MCI as EF-1. Despite the fact the damage path was half a mile wide.
To date, there have been fewer than 220 tornadoes of EF-1 strength or greater nationwide this year. In Kansas, there have been four twisters through May 10.
Four. And those were weak.
It’s the slowest start to a tornado season in 15 years across America. Another example: Iowa will likely pass its record for most days between tornadoes this week (record: 355. Current: 355).
So with a month left before temperatures across the Central Plains stay in the 90s, humidities match and the cold fronts go away, it would be tempting to think we might escape with minimal damage. Spring has been late. I mean, we’ve had a wintry mix in May, forcing orchards to start fires to keep their trees from the dangers of a hard freeze. In May, mind you. Not March.
But there’s a month left in the tornado season. Lord knows what could happen.
Last year’s tornado season hit early and hit hard around east central Kansas when Harveyville was hit by a rapid spin-up twister in late February. The EF-2 was on the ground for barely five minutes, but in a case of wrong place, wrong time, Harveyville took a direct hit. From there, the severe weather season lost a lot of its punch across the Central Plains, although a host of twisters developed across central Kansas in mid-April.
Two years ago was different. There was the Dixie Outbreak, which blasted the previously “untouchable” Super Outbreak record of tornado touchdowns in April. Reading, Kan., made national headlines for a deadly tornado in mid-May…only to see Joplin nailed by one of the worst twisters in American history less than 20 hours later.
Omaha, Neb., marked the 38th anniversary of its big one earlier this month, the F-5 demon which tore through the center of town. Emporia, Kan., will mark 39 years since an F-4 sliced off the west edge of the city next month.
I guess all this indicates that here in the Midwest, it doesn’t matter how much time is left in the tornado season. In some cases, like Harveyville, it really doesn’t matter if you are officially in twister season. If the conditions are right, you head for shelter (or you head for work if you’re in radio news).
If Mother Nature has taught us anything, though, it’s that lengthy periods of quiet can end with shattering speed. With the Storm Prediction Center indicating a good severe weather possibility this weekend, our sleepy tornado season could roar to life.
There’s a month left — officially– in the 2013 tornado season. Hope you haven’t been lulled to sleep.