Hearing more about tornado dangers in Wichita? Here’s why

Wichita escaped a tornado in this round of storms, but nothing is protecting it from being hit in the future.

by Maria Carter

Violent tornadoes touching down chewing up ground for dozens of miles. Baseball-sized hail. Wind gusts of up to 80 mph.

The weather forecast for Monday night in Wichita looked dire.

People braced for the worst. Wichita Public Schools canceled after-school activities. Other districts let out early. 

Dillons grocery store in College Hill posted a sign offering its meat freezer as a tornado shelter. The Holiday Inn in Maize posted on Reddit that people could take cover there.

But then, nothing happened — at least not in Wichita.

Monday evening was in the 70s, not a drop of rain, and the setting sun peeked through the clouds.

So what happened?

“Sometimes forecasts pan out better than others,” said Kevin Darmofal, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wichita.  

Wichita got lucky — the storm system hit other parts of the region as predicted. But there’s no evidence that Wichita, or any other city, should expect this luck in avoiding storms to continue. 

Not an exact science

The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center issued a severe weather warning at 8:30 a.m. Monday that included southern Sedgwick County in its high-risk tier. 

It was only the third time since 2012 that the weather service issued that type of alert in Kansas. Those warnings come only when all the ingredients combine for the most severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

The prediction was correct overall. 

Great Bend and McPherson had thunderstorms, some with small hail. In Barnsdall, Oklahoma, 100 miles southeast of Wichita, an EF-4 tornado with gusts as high as 200 mph killed one person and damaged dozens of homes.

“The science of forecasting has really improved over the years,” Darmofal said. “We do get a lot of lead time on significant events.”

Besides the heads-up early in the day that severe weather looked likely, Barnsdall residents had plenty of time to take cover. About 45 minutes before the tornado hit the town, the weather service issued a tornado warning to signal that not only were conditions primed, but that radar showed a likely twister was on the move.

People need to avoid complacency, Darmofal said. Tornado watches, alerts that the conditions are right for a tornado to form, allow people to be ready and keep an eye out. 

“We tell people to go about their business,” he said, “and just have a plan that if severe weather hits and there’s a tornado warning issued, ‘Where we are going to go?’”

What protects Wichita?

In this case, some warm air moved in over the Wichita area in the afternoon, diverting the storm around the city.

But was folklore that the Keeper of the Plains statue protects the city real? Nope. 

In 2012, a tornado tore through an Oaklawn mobile home park and pounded the Spirit Aerosystems plant, causing $280 million in damages.

That’s on top of tornadoes in 1991, 1992 and 1999 — all since the Keeper of the Plains was installed 50 years ago. 

Lots of cities have similar myths that something is protecting them.  

Burnett’s Mound was believed to shield Topeka from tornadoes — until one struck not just Topeka but Burnett’s Mound in 1966

Tonganoxie, Kansas, population 5,850, gets credited for causing storms to go around its much larger neighbor Kansas City. Again, meteorologists say there’s nothing to this.

But do cities themselves ward off storms?

Sometimes, the myth goes even further — saying that cities, by their very nature, are shielded from tornadoes. 

These fall into two main camps: urban heat islands and tall buildings. 

Cities are filled with buildings and roads that absorb the sun’s heat. Temperatures in these urban heat islands can be as much as seven degrees hotter during the day and five degrees hotter at night than outlying areas.  

While heat islands can make it uncomfortable and even dangerously hot, there’s no hard evidence that the effect is strong enough to ward off tornadoes, said Darmofal.

And what about tall buildings deflecting or breaking up a tornado?

Tornadoes are ginormous, ranging anywhere from five to 10 miles in height. They go over hills and even mountains, so a skyscraper is small in comparison. 

The reason cities do not seem to get hit as often is land area. Rural areas and small towns take up far more space than cities, so when tornadoes do hit, they are more likely to hit somewhere like Barnsdall than Wichita. 

This article was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative (WJC). The WJC is a partnership of 11 media and community partners, including The Beacon. The WJC is embarking on 18 months of dedicated coverage to shed light on the pressing issue of affordable housing in Wichita.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon