When I kissed my wife and children goodbye and left the house for work 25 years ago today, I had a terrible pain in the pit of my stomach. After reviewing the data, I knew there were going to be violent tornadoes in southern Kansas. My hope was they would occur in unpopulated rural areas. But, that was not to be.
So, my next hope was that the early tornado forecasts – that local meteorologists started broadcasting three days before – and the warnings to be issued later in the day ahead of the tornadoes would save lives.
Considering the state of the art of tornado forecasting in 1991, the forecasts that Friday were amazingly good.
The morning tornado outlook, seen on the “Today” show’s and “Good Morning America’s” local cut-ins, predicted a rarely-forecast “high” risk of tornadoes.
(S) The tornado watch issued at 12:10pm was only the second “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch ever issued by the National Severe Storms Forecast Center. That watch, broadcast over and over on local radio and television throughout the afternoon, gave more than five hours of advanced notice to the Wichita Metro area that we had an extraordinarily high threat of tornadoes.
About 4:30, the first thunderstorms began developing southwest of Wichita. The first tornado was a brief storm near Attica.
The 5:30 network news led with stories about the resignation of Gen. Charles Thomas and his contention that defense cuts threatened the security of the United States. Unfortunately, that would no longer be the lead story by the time the newscast ended.
Wichita’s Rynotek Media and I put together the brief video I will show momentarily of the tornado and the tornado coverage from the time it was in the area of Conway Springs. The first cut-in was during the 5:30 NBC Nightly News.
The first tornado in the Wichita metro area was actually in Goddard where several buildings, including a boat dealer, were destroyed. The tornado that had been near Attica had lifted. But, that same supercell thunderstorm was about to produce the Andover tornado.
Now that we have set the scene, let’s review this brief video and a sample of the warning messages and corresponding appearance of the tornado 25 years ago at this time.
The warning you just saw for Andover was 19 minutes before the tornado crossed Andover Road.
I’m certain Jim O’Donnell and Merril Teller also did great jobs that evening, but, as you can imagine, I was far too busy to check out the competition. We've already seen that Dan Dillion and John Wright did a terrific job on KFDI.
Even by today’s standards, 19-minutes would be considered an excellent warning.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control did its first-ever morbidity study on the Wichita-Andover tornado. You know what they learned? That, without the warnings, the tornado would have killed 94 people! The warning system saved 77 lives!
While people in south central Kansas were recovering from the shock of the disaster, weather scientists in Norman, Oklahoma, were reviewing the data from the first-ever violent tornadoes that appeared on the prototype Doppler radar installed earlier in the week. Since 1979, 12 years earlier, a Doppler radar network had been proposed for installation across the United States. What makes Doppler different from conventional regular radars is that it can measure the winds inside of a storm. Tornadoes become much easier to see so warnings can be issued.
Since the radar performed well, one would think quick implementation would follow. (S) Unfortunately, politics stood in the way. In July of 1991, Congressman Dan Glickman convened a congressional hearing in Wichita and told the NWS, “I want a Doppler radar!” for Wichita and for the nation. The network of Dopplers was installed beginning in 1992.
(S) Since the Doppler radar network was installed, our nation has gained an average of ten precious minutes in tornado warning time. We are up to 14 minutes, which is plenty of time for people to get to shelter.
And, now, the amazing statistic: Rate of deaths from tornadoes has been cut by 97% since the 1930’s, the last decade when there was no warning system of any kind!! 97%!! In any other field, this would merit a Nobel Prize.
Meteorologists are the most dedicated people you will ever meet. Whether they work for AccuWeather, the National Weather Service or our local TV and radio stations, meteorologists put in countless extra hours to insure the safety of people of our region.
As I stated earlier, we saved 77 lives on that day 25 years ago and have cut the U.S. tornado death rate by an incredible 97%. I believe the meteorologists, storm chasers and other members of the storm warning team in the audience this evening would appreciate a round of applause.
Today, of course, Doppler radar is taken for granted. (S) And, in the last five years, those same radars have been upgraded with “dual-polarization” capabilities. That allows them to measure rainfall far more accurately and better detect hail and, yes, even tornadoes.
But, weather science isn’t finished. A new weather satellite to be launched by NOAA this October promises one-minute pictures of tornado-producing thunderstorms and other critical data with an ultimate goal of even better weather forecasts and warnings.
Many of you know that, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, the company for which I am Sr. Vice President, has a contract with the City of Andover to provide city-specific warnings. Butler County is one of the largest counties in the United States and a tornado can occur in one part of the county while it is literally sunny elsewhere. Given the trauma caused by the 1991 tornado we commemorate today, city officials want plenty of warning if there is a genuine threat but do not want the sirens to sound and a warning to go out unless Andover is genuinely threatened.
At AccuWeather, we have the most sophisticated system for tracking tornadoes the state-of-the-science allows. Our meteorologists are watching the specific weather approaching Andover 24/7/365. Because Andover has public shelters, extra time is needed to allow people to get from their homes to the shelters in an orderly manner. Our goal is to provide that warning. (S)
To give you an example, the night of April 14, 2012, Spirit Aerosystems, Beechcraft, and others were hard-hit by an EF-3 tornado. We provided 12 extra minutes of warning to the City of Andover. Fortunately, the tornado weakened considerably before it reached Andover and only scattered, very light damaged occurred here.
And, now, a personal note. I have made the provision of warnings of extreme weather my life’s work. What our team did 25 years ago today is one of the proudest moments of my career.
The next speaker, Chance Hayes of the National Weather Service – another extremely dedicated meteorologist our region is lucky to have, is going to complete the warning circle by talking about advances in tornado safety.
Thank you and good evening.