Friday, May 4, 2012

Five Years Ago Today

... I was watching the weather closely. The atmosphere would become extremely unstable, the upper atmospheric winds were favorable, and a suspicious wind shift line had taken up residence along U.S. which stretches east-west across southern Kansas. Major tornadoes often occur near wind shift lines.

The previous Monday, AccuWeather had delivered a software update to our client KWCH TV in Wichita. While I had provided them with information on their new capabilities, I placed a call and invited myself out there to do additional training. I knew they were going to need them before the night was out.

At 6:10pm, the NWS issued its tornado watch for southwest Kansas.
Tornado watch for Greensburg issued by the
NWS Storm Prediction Center's Steve Corfidi
Back at WeatherData (now AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions) we were monitoring the storms as they rapidly developed just north of the Oklahoma border.

The Union Pacific Railroad's Golden State Route runs along the north side of Greensburg. They have been a long-time client of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions. Meteorologist Scott Breit issued this warning for the Union Pacific:
The railroad ended up stopping four trains to keep them out of the danger area.

The tornado was now 3/4th of a mile wide. It could be seen from the south because of nearly continuous lightning. However, on the Greensburg side of the storm (north), it could not be seen because heavy rain and hail blocked the view. The city was reliant on the warning system.

At 9:19, the Dodge City National Weather Service office's Mike Umschied issued its warning for Greensburg:

Because tornado sirens are mechanical, they can burn out if too much heat builds up. To prevent that, Greensburg had a policy of sounding its siren for five minutes then turning it off. However, because of the reports of homes being destroyed to the south of the city, they made the decision to "leave it on." It continued to sound until the power failed.

The Wichita TV stations were in continuous coverage as the radar looked more and more ominous. The "hook echo" signature of a tornado had appeared as the tornado widened to one mile.

The television meteorologists urged -- in the strongest possible language -- that people needed to be in shelter in Greensburg.  The 1.7-mile wide tornado was perfectly aligned with the town at 9:52pm as it moved north through the city. The tornado brought utter devastation throughout Greensburg.
Photo by Larry Schwarm
The death toll in Greensburg was a tragic nine. For a tornado of its type, that was a very low number. The warning system saved more than 230 precious lives.

And, there was piece of largely unnoticed good news: There is nothing visible around the Union Pacific's right-of-way. If the AccuWeather had not issued the warning it is almost certain at least one train would have been derailed putting the crew in peril and making the cleanup that much more difficult.
Because of the warning, the trains were safely outside of the area when the tornado crossed the track.

The Greensburg tornado was a triumph of weather science. Bob Dixon, mayor of Greensburg, told me that if 200+ people had been killed the town never would have been able to recover.  

They are having a memorial service this evening. Hope you will join us for their recovery celebration tomorrow. 

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