A letter by Dick Elder, now-retired Meteorologist in Charge, National Weather Service Wichita
Hi, my name is Dick Elder. I am the (now-retired) manager of the Wichita National Weather Service office. I’ve had the honor of serving in this position for nearly 21 years. Over that time, I have seen a lot of severe weather events. It should go without saying I am fascinated by severe weather. That’s the main reason I chose the meteorology career, and it is part of the reason I came to Wichita to pursue it.
One year that occurred not long after I came to Wichita continues to stand out for me: 1991 – a year unprecedented for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in Kansas and in the Wichita area. Since the Weather Service began keeping tornado statistics in 1950, Kansas has averaged 60 tornado touchdowns across the state per year. Fortunately, only about 5 per year are classified as EF3 or higher on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. EF3 tornadoes are strong enough to cause significant property damage, injuries, and deaths.
In 1991, Kansas had 115 tornadoes. Nine of those were rated as EF3 or higher. The strongest was the April 26 EF5 tornado that ripped through Andover in western Butler County. Twenty people died in severe weather and tornadoes that year with 347 injured. Property damage was put at $330 million dollars.
Few people realize that on March 26 and April 26, 1991, tornadoes followed tracks within 5 miles of one another across Cowley County. In Sedgwick County, a violent tornado tracked across south Wichita on April 26 and three weeks later, on May 16, another strong tornado touched down and moved within a mile of the original track. Like lightning, tornadoes do strike twice in the same place.
Many of you may know Wichita is sort of located on a dividing line between the Great American Desert to the west and the wetter and more temperate areas of the Ozarks and the Midwest. The city and surrounding areas sit in the heart of Tornado Alley.
I hope this region never again sees severe weather to match 1991, but my experience tells me we will see massive tornadoes and outbreaks of multiple tornadoes again.
The destructive weather of 1991 is something I think about each and every day as we prepare for severe weather season each year. We, as scientists and public protectors, learned many things that year that have helped us be successful in the National Weather Service mission to protect lives and property.
I came to the realization that the National Weather Service can provide the best warnings possible, local emergency management agencies can sound sirens, and local media can provide constant updates on the storms; but it still comes down to each of us taking responsibility to stay informed and to make correct decisions to protect ourselves from severe weather.
I want to give you some examples of how poor decisions made April 26, 1991, resulted in tragedy that might have been avoided.
As a violent tornado was moving across Cowley County northeast of Winfield, volunteer severe weather spotters were out ahead of the storm. Not only were they calling in reports on the tornado’s location and direction of travel, they were going house to house telling people to take shelter because a dangerous tornado was headed their way. One of the tornado fatalities that day was a young lady who chose to stay in her mobile home after one of those brave spotters told her to take cover. The mobile home was demolished and she was one of the first fatalities of the storm.
At nearly the same time a violent and deadly tornado was moving out of south Wichita and drawing a bead on the city of Andover. The Golden Spur Mobile Home Park was in the direct path of this tornado. Knowing this, an Andover policeman took it upon himself to drive through the Mobile Home Park, sounding his siren to do what he could to advise people that they needed to take shelter. Many did take shelter in the Park’s community shelter.
However, 13 Golden Spur residents died in the tornado. Some either were oblivious to the tornado or weren’t sure what to do to stay safe.
One couple left their mobile home and sought shelter in the metal shed where they stored their lawn equipment. Their mobile home and shed were destroyed and one of the couple died.
One person knew the tornado was coming, walked to the community shelter, and then went back to his mobile home telling others he had forgotten to lock the door. His body was found among the rubble.
Another man, known to be rather independent, enjoyed sitting on his porch. He stayed true to his routine that day and sat on his porch, refusing to heed warnings from others about the tornado. His body was found among the debris.
My purpose here is not to criticize the victims of these storms. My purpose is to emphasize the need for everyone to educate himself or herself about what to do when severe weather strikes. At some time, you will be threatened by severe weather. The decisions you make at that time can mean the difference between life and death.
Our Storm Spotter presentations offer the opportunity to learn about severe weather and how to stay safe. Everyone who attends and completes a Skywarn Spotter training session is a qualified storm spotter, educated on severe weather recognition and detection and in providing accurate reports of severe weather conditions to the National Weather Service and local emergency management.
You can also learn how to be safe by following guidance in severe weather safety brochures available from the National Weather Service and the American Red Cross. You can find links to severe weather brochures at http://www.weather.gov/safety.php.
I encourage each of you to take these Safety tips to heart and share them with family and friends. Make sure you know where to find adequate shelter if severe weather threatens at home or at work – the two places you spend most of your time. Make sure to share this with family and friends, and ask that they do the same. Let’s learn from the tragedies of 1991.