100 Tornadoes in 24 Hours, But Plenty of Notice


tornadoWoodward, Okla. – The tornadoes were unrelenting – more than 100 in 24 hours over a stretch of the Plains states. They tossed vehicles and ripped through homes. They drove families to their basements and whipped debris across small towns throughout the Midwest. In some areas, baseball-size hail rained from the sky.

And yet, in a stroke that some officials have attributed to a more vigilant and persistent warning system, relatively few people were killed or injured.

As of late Sunday afternoon, the only five confirmed deaths from the weekend storms were all here in Woodward, a rural community about 140 miles from Oklahoma City. Local emergency management officials said on Sunday that children were among the victims and that there were 29 injured with ailments ranging from minor wounds to those requiring hospitalization.

Days ahead of the deadly winds there was an unusual warning that alerted residents across at least five states to the threat of “extremely dangerous” and “catastrophic” weather.

The predictions held, it seems. But the people listened.

“I really think people took the warnings and they took them very seriously,” Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas said Sunday. “We had more notice on this system than you normally do. You normally are looking at a couple of hours’ notice. Well, this one had almost two days’ notice.”

In southwest Iowa, a tornado battered the small town of Thurman, damaging or destroying 75 to 90 percent of its homes, the authorities said. And yet, somehow in the town of about 200, there were no serious injuries or deaths reported. “Mostly everybody was able to get to cover before it hit,” said Mike Crecelius, the emergency management director for the county.

Nearby, five tractor-trailers that had been traveling on Interstate 29 shortly before the tornado hit Thurman were overturned in the high winds. One truck driver was seriously injured and taken to a hospital with a perforated lung, Mr. Crecelius said.

Forecasters issued their first warning on Friday, predicting a tornado outbreak that had the potential of being a “high-end, life-threatening event” for a swath of the Midwest.

Officials said the enhanced language was developed because of the large number of deaths from tornadoes across the country in recent years. “This is one of the lessons learned from the various deadly outbreaks of tornadoes last year,” Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, said Sunday in a telephone interview.

One warning in Wichita, Kan., on Saturday said, “This is a life-threatening situation. You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter.”

The system will be tested for another six months before National Weather Service officials decide whether to continue or expand it.

Before the storms hit on Saturday, Mike Hudson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Kansas City, Mo., called the forecast perhaps the “first opportunity” to gauge the effect of the heightened language.

Early returns were promising, officials said.

Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department, said “the language that was being used appeared to make people pay more attention.” In 2011, 550 people nationwide, and more than 150 in Joplin, Mo., alone, were killed by tornadoes, Mr. Vaccaro said, the fourth deadliest year on record. The deadliest year was 1925, when 794 people were reported killed by tornadoes.

Weather service officials chose Kansas and Missouri to test the new language, Mr. Vaccaro said, because of the number of storms that typically develop there.

“We wanted to pick the central states because you’re in the heart of Tornado Alley,” he said.

Despite the impressive number of tornadoes, weather experts said the data did not indicate any significant increase in the number or the severity of storms in recent years.

“The occurrence of strong and violent storms has remained relatively stable over the long term,” said Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

What seems to be happening, Mr. Bunting said, is that the public has become more aware of smaller storms that once might have gone unrecorded.

“We have more people chasing and more storm spotters,” he said, adding, “I suspect that they were always occurring, but there are more people chasing them now and documenting them with cameras.” But, Mr. Bunting said, there was an “active pattern” in which large-scale conditions like stronger jet streams interacting with widespread areas of unstable air were making an environment more favorable for tornadoes to form.

The tornadoes were part of a weather system that encompassed parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa and spawned 122 confirmed tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service. Officials said that 99 twisters hit Kansas on Saturday, but as of late Sunday afternoon, no deaths had been confirmed in the state.

“God was merciful,” Governor Brownback said on CNN.

The governor said that officials were continuing to assess damages across Kansas, and he signed an emergency declaration on Sunday.

That there was not more damage, loss of life or injuries caused by this weekend’s swarm of storms was due to at least two reasons, officials said. Most of the reported tornadoes were either brief or struck largely in sparsely populated rural areas.

Perhaps the most important reason that so many people were kept out of harm’s way was the Storm Prediction Center’s unusual step of issuing a dire warning days ahead of the storm.

Matt Lehenbauer, emergency management director for both the city and county of Woodward, said that 89 homes and 13 businesses were destroyed. He said the tornado struck between 12:15 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. Sunday, on a path that was two to three miles long and a quarter of a mile to a third of a mile wide.

There were eight tornadoes in Woodward County on Saturday. And on the previous Monday – the 65th anniversary of a deadly 1947 tornado – seven tornadoes touched down.

“It has been a very active week for severe weather for us,” Mr. Lehenbauer said.

But Mr. Lehenbauer said that a series of problems affected Woodward’s 20 sirens. One was struck by lightning. Others failed to work because the tornado took out master power lines south of the city, he said.

“We do know that the ones that did work were on for two to three minutes before they shut off, from the loss of electricity,” he said.

Mr. Lehenbauer said city officials were stunned by the destruction, but grateful as well.

“Looking at the damage, we are a bit surprised we don’t have more injuries and/or fatalities, because some of the damage is very, very extensive,” he said.

Johnny McMahan, 55, managing editor of The Woodward News, the town’s six-day-a-week newspaper, said Woodward is largely an oil-and-gas town with a population close to 15,000.

In one of the heavily damaged neighborhoods on Sunday afternoon, Gov. Mary Fallin, Mayor Roscoe Hill, and other city and state officials met with residents who were cleaning debris from their homes and making repairs.

Mr. Hill walked down the middle of a street as a light rain began to fall. The five residents who died were very much on his mind. So was the long-ago tornado that had killed so many.

Asked if he had any regrets that several of the sirens failed, Mr. Hill replied, “Absolutely.”

“You don’t know if our sirens were working, maybe we could have saved one life,” he said.

{NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}