“TOTO, I DON’T THINK WE ARE IN KANSAS ANYMORE.”
Dorthy from Frank Baum’s Wizard of OZ
As I set here on a bright sunshiny day it is the anniversary of the Greensburg tornado. Memories of this tornado and many others are in my mind and I cannot help reflecting on how far we have come in the last few years and how Greensburg is a showcase for what happens when people finally do have at least a 20 minute warning.
Going back to the Udall tornado, weather science was in it’s infancy and the means of warning about an approaching tornado was something that was shaky technically. But also the policy of the National Weather Service did not even like to put out a tornado warning because people would either ignore it, because of the inaccuracy, or panic.
The tornado warning for Udall put out on one of the few television stations of the time, KAKE Channel 10, came ten minutes after the town had been destroyed. The actual audacity of a weather forecaster warning of an imminent tornado was actually an Air Force weather man in Oklahoma when Tinker AFB was hit. It took many years for the National Weather service and weather science to improve enough to take the chance of trying to get warnings out as soon as possible.
In my lifetime of living in Kansas, and my work with the fire and rescue service, I have seen a lot of tornado’s and the aftermath of them. There is only one statement that can be said of a tornado that always holds true, ‘what a tornado does cannot be fictionalized more than the reality.’
When I was in high school we had a boy who was a mechanical genius and as that goes some thought of as a strange guy. He had a fascination of tornado’s and I remember welding on a parabolic antenna that he built to mount on his van (metro van) for a detector he built. I never had the chance to go tornado chasing with him but a cousin did and the stories rival any chaser stories today.
On May 5, the morning of the tornado, I was getting ready to go to Sun City for a Ducks Unlimited event that we were planning for that night. I went out in the middle of the afternoon to help set up and it was one of those weather breeder days that only a native Kansan can tell you that “something big is going to happen.”
I watched the storm system build all afternoon and evening and when the first funnel dropped it was heading east and we were in the middle of our event. I sat outside on Buster’s porch listening to the National Weather Service and Barber County west tower. Down in that valley that was all I could hear. Our Regional Director kept tabs on me every 10 minutes in case we had to evacuate Sun City.
Watching the TV in the other side of Buster’s they watched the radar as it hit Greensburg and at that time the electricity went out. We were finished and headed everyone for home. I still remember when they came out and said “Greensburg is gone”. For a minute it was just hard to absorb that information.
I spent the most part of the next 48 hours listening to the scanner at home and as the response developed it was apparent that there was very little left. Two days later two tornado’s just as big hit north of there but was in mostly open country. There were two more people killed, one a Sheriff’s officer who had stopped to warn a family and was not able to get out of the way.
I asked the weather broadcaster from Dodge City NWS about the string of tornado’s and storms that took the basic same path for two weeks? It would have been part of a book I wanted to write on that day. The answer was that it was a “good observation” and did not know if anyone would research that. I don’t know if it ever has been.
Only one time in my life had I heard the issuance of a ‘Tornado Emergency’ and that was during the Andover Tornado. I was completely blown away by the radar operator issuing the Emergency for Greensburg. Just like the first actual tornado warning the meteorologists put their career’s on the line to do this.
In my better days I would have driven for a chaser in a minute but never had the chance. I also had no training to chase on my own. After the movie Twister, the pushing of a profession and passion was directly affected. Just like the TV show Emergency pushed EMS, Paramedics, Fire Rescue, and Emergency medicine into a fast mode.
Even with the memorials after ten years the impact of Greensburg has yet to be fully realized.