Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wichita Avoided Catastrophe

And, "catastrophe" is the right word.  

Kathleen, meteorology student Cat Taylor, and I drove to the southwest side of Wichita to photograph what we were nearly certain would produce a tornado as early as 2:30pm.

At 3pm, a hook echo, a radar signature of a tornado was forming southwest of downtown. All images are mine except as noted.

As we were in position between Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport and Clearwater, we watched the entire life-cycle of a tornado that took out power lines and did some other (minor, as far as I know at this point) damage. UPDATE: Three homes damaged. It was moving right for Wichita.

The hook echo was getting better defined:
The black circle is the radar site at NWS at Mid-Continent Airport
The "mesocyclone" (rotating winds that cause the hook take its distinctive shape) was manifested by a rapidly rotating lowering (the black cylinder above the two electrical transmission towers).

The radar became horrifying in that the circulation in the Doppler wind data became very intense: Greensburg or Joplin magnitude, and it was headed right for the city.

Shalyn Phillips, Dick McGowan and Darin Brunin got this photo of the tornado as it moved toward the Wichita city limits (a different tornado than the one I photographed above). Note how indistinct it was becoming: Rain-wrapped!  Note: The tornado went right over our initial photography set up.

If you were listening to Wichita radio, you heard about the tornado south of the airport. This was it. Again, increasingly indistinct because of rain-wrapping. This photo from Mike Nelson via Facebook.

The hook and tornado -- we believed -- was making its way into southwest Wichita. Here, it was crossing Interstate 235.

Then, the uncertainty. The radar showed the very strong circulation and a hook that was completely wrapped in rain (like Joplin). Even though the sirens were going off in our location (near Haysville), I was scared to death history might repeat itself.

But, the damage* was minor compared to what I feared. I'm guessing that there was so much rain in the storm (considerable flash flooding even with the drought) that the downdrafts undercut the tornado's circulation and it could no longer make it all the way to the ground. We heard, and others reported hearing, a roaring sound. Hopefully, we will find out, as various mobile radars were on the storm and this may be a topic of future research.

Regardless, it was a Dairy Queen chase. It honors a tradition of the original storm chasers (circa 1972) of going to DQ after a successful chase in which a tornado is caught.
Kathleen (superb driver), Cat Taylor (excellent chaser) and yours truly. 
Wichita: Say some prayers of thanksgiving. This could have been another Joplin in terms of the damage the storm could have done. 

* There was scattered damage around Wichita, including my home. More on that later this evening.


  1. Mike-
    Thank You for your early post to "Watch these storms!". I was able to contact friends and family in the Goddard & Wichita areas and give them plenty of time to get home, or turn the TV on before this storm was in the area.

    Mike B

  2. Mike, I sent you a friend request on Facebook; I remember you from your days at KSNW! :) I hope your friends, family and neighbors are okay.

    Here is a short video I took of the tornado just SW of Clearwater:

  3. Great coverage, as usual - and some well-deserved ice cream!

  4. Once again glad I follow your postings. Sure seems like the area from Clearwater NE to Haysville/ Oaklawn is our local "tornado alley" the last 20 years.

  5. Yes, it does Bear.

    This storm, had it been on the ground, would have gone from south of Mid-Continent to about Lincoln straight south of downtown to Eastborough to just north of Andover.

  6. Just heard from the NWS. The tornado was rated EF-1.

  7. We definitely heard the roaring. It takes a lot to get me worried during storms and that roaring....that got me worried. I've never heard that before and I probably won't forget it. We were located about 2-3 blocks north of Zoo Blvd and West Street in Wichita.

  8. Excellent reporting. Thanks!

  9. We heard the roaring as well (9th N. & West St) & I kept asking my husband if that was thunder or a tornado... Thankfully he replied it was just a long rumble of thunder because if he had said anything different, our 3 boys & myself probably would have lost it! Praise God that this did not turn into another Joplin!

  10. We heard roaring at 47th st S & Hydraulic area.

  11. Mike,

    That tornado was "only" EF-1? Pretty incredible considering the strength of the rotation. Though it may be too soon to tell if the low rating was because the tornado really was weaker (at least on the ground) than anticipated, or because its most intense phases occurred outside of the city where there were fewer damage indicators to hit.


  12. We also heard the roaring while we were under our stairs in our basement. Very scary. (119th and Pawnee) Thank the Lord for that rain that seemed to stop it.

  13. Time to pause and thank the Lord for deliverance and to consider why we were spared.

  14. Keep in mind that the EF rating is based on things that are hit. I believe the tornado was stronger at one point, based on radar, but it must not have struck anything at that time.

  15. We heard the roar at Central and Maize. Had never heard something like that before.

  16. WE HEARD THAT ROAR FOR ABOUT 2 MINUTES! We didnt have radio on or tv on,,, I was working my office in my home, my husband was working on our kitchen remodel...I came out and said, have you been hearing a constant roar for a few minutes? He said yes, and I said "what the heck is it"....We both finally looked outside and rain was beginning to start and we both headed for the TV...almost at the same time, hail started to fall and the GET UNDER GROUND IMMEDIATELY thing was on the screen! We heard the roar for 2 plus minutes at least. We're at I-135 and Pawnee area...


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