Monday, April 16, 2012

Mid-April, High Risk Outbreak


April 14th’s severe weather outbreak was yet another for the record books.  After a tornado ripped through Norman, Oklahoma on Friday, one giant system, in three separate waves, raked through the central Midwest, striking the towns of Wichita, Kansas and Woodward, Oklahoma among others.  It isn’t too often we hear about a National Weather Service Office seeking shelter and passing duties off to another, neighboring office, alas it happened Saturday night.  Unfortunately, we once again hear about townspeople from Iowa to Oklahoma commenting they had “no warning” because they did not hear the warning sirens.  In Woodward, high winds took out the transmitter for to one of the centrally-located sirens.  Survivors reported hearing distant sirens or a mangled siren sound.  To make the situation worse, the manual-control was disabled when the power went out. 

Courtesy of: NOAA/Storm Prediction Center
This outbreak was foreshadowed many days in advance.  On Thursday, the Storm Prediction Center issued a Day Three Convective Outlook that indicated a “Moderate Risk” for severe weather from the Texas/Oklahoma border to near the Kansas/Nebraska border.  By Friday, the Day Two outlook was at its highest, a “High Risk” for Saturday.  High risk days from the SPC are very rare, especially being a day out still.  The last time the SPC issued a “High Risk” on the Day Two outlook was April 7th, 2006.  91 tornadoes were reported and in total for that day, 13 people lost their lives.  Needless to say, this event gave plenty of notice it was coming, and it was mean.

Several media outlets began to prepare and deploy their assets early.  The Weather Channel sent reporters to Lincoln, NE, Oklahoma City, OK and Wichita, KS.  CNN sent Rob Marciano on the road.  Several local stations also had their station storm chasers positioned.  The first tornado report came from the Dodge City, KS NWS office.  After that, the atmosphere was off like a powder keg.  Across the nation, meteorologists used a fairly new term: being “Weather Aware”.  The idea that this weather will impact you in some way, shape or form and you should start taking precautions. Putting the call to action in the hands of the general public is an idea sometimes not touched on a lot. 

Throughout the afternoon, into the evening and overnight, tornadoes popped up and went away just as fast.  After looking at the unofficial report maps, it seems like tornadoes took four main routes, including one that started on the Oklahoma-Texas-Panhandle border and traveled northwest, through Wichita, KS and continued to follow the Kansas Turnpike, before weakening around Cassoday, KS.  This was the storm the National Weather Service office in Wichita had to seek shelter, along with a very shaken Mike Seidel and The Weather Channel crew, and pass duties off to the Topeka office. 

As their first duty, the Topeka office issued a “Tornado Emergency” for the city of Wichita, with this text:

“AT 1019 PM CDT…TORNADO EMERGENCY FOR THE WICHITA METRO AREA. A CONFIRMED LARGE…VIOLENT AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TORNADO WAS LOCATED NEAR HAYSVILLE…AND MOVING NORTHEAST AT 50 MPH.
THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION.

HAZARD…DEADLY TORNADO.

SOURCE…RADAR CONFIRMED TORNADO.

IMPACT…THIS IS A LIFE THREATENING SITUATION. YOU COULD BE KILLED IF NOT UNDERGROUND OR IN A TORNADO SHELTER. COMPLETE
DESTRUCTION OF ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOODS IS LIKELY. MANY WELL
BUILT HOMES AND BUSINESSES WILL BE COMPLETELY SWEPT FROM
THEIR FOUNDATIONS. DEBRIS WILL BLOCK MOST ROADWAYS. MASS
DEVASTATION IS HIGHLY LIKELY MAKING THE AREA
UNRECOGNIZABLE TO SURVIVORS.”

The very serious wording from the National Weather Service is a new endeavor.  Officials who are trying to convey the danger and seriousness of these situations will start using the “Tornado Emergency” and “Particularly Dangerous Situation” more, and use of dramatic and life-like impact statements.  This attempt was first used by the National Weather Service in New Orleans when trying to convey the potential impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city.  This new idea is fairly interesting to a meteorological historian, since before 1948, the Weather Bureau wasn’t allowed to issue tornado forecasts or warnings at all. 

While tornadoes certainly took the front page stories in the news, wind and hail also caused a lot of damage and destruction.  A report from Topeka reported grapefruit-sized hail punching holes in roofs of cars.  Reports from Randolph, KS reported hail the size of softballs.  Wind was also a major issue.  At Oskaloosa Municipal Airport, just outside of Freemont, Iowa, an ASOS station recorded a wind gust of 97 mph.  To put that into perspective, 97 mph is on the lower end of a Category 2 hurricane.  At McConnell Air Force Base, outside of Wichita where some damage from the tornado occurred, they also recorded a wind speed of 76mph.  More damage reports of tree limbs blown off, poles snapped, big rigs blown off the road and ever barns blown down compound the destruction even more.

On April 14th alone, severe weather yielded 101 tornado reports, 71 wind reports and 134 hail reports across just six states.  This outbreak also spawned tornadoes over a four day period, with storms still occurring.  We already know that the tornado that hit Kanopolis, KS was ruled an EF-4.  The tornadoes that struck Wichita and Woodward were both ranked as EF-3.  The Woodward storm that hit in the overnight hours between Saturday and Sunday, killed 6 people and injuring 20.  So far, these are the only deaths reported throughout the outbreak.  Some might say the lack of tornado sirens may have contributed to their passing, while others might add that it was an unfortunate turn of events that led to tragedy. Either way, their deaths continue to spotlight the need for a widespread change of mentality to a new, better and universal overhaul of the public weather warning system.