Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The System Works

A quick comment about the horrific F5 tornado that hit little Greenburg, Kansas last week, killing 11.

This was the first F5 tornado in the United States since the Oklahoma City storm of May 3, 1999, which I witnessed first hand while chasing that storm. It is truly a testament to the effectiveness of the warning system developed and refined over the years by the National Weather Service, local communities, and media outlets that only 11 were killed in this town of 1,600.

This storm didn't "just appear." It wasn't out of the blue, out of nowhere, a surprise. The storm had been warned for nearly 40 minutes as it made its way northeast from the Sitka area. There was ample time to take tornado precautions, be that fleeing the community entirely or taking cover from the storm.

Hats off to the professionals at the NWS office in Dodge City that were issuing the warnings, and in particular to Mike Umsheid, who was interpreting the radar that afternoon and took it upon himself to issue an urgent "Tornado Emergency" message as the storm bore down on Greenburg. This is his story. It is estimated that the tornado was nearly 2 miles wide and took between 15 and 20 minutes to blend this once beautiful little town on the Kansas prairie into a mulch of lumber, automobiles, aluminum siding and fiberglass insulation. Twenty Minutes! Can you imagine being trapped inside such a beast?

I can't imagine how different the death toll had been had this storm hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sure, the population density is quite a bit higher, but folks here are often oblivious to severe weather until it is well upon them. The forecasters can warn of impending bad weather for days, but it still catches many by surprise. . . they're usually just too busy in their lives to pay attention.

Contrast Greenburg with the much smaller tornado that hit Eagle Pass, TX a few weeks earlier--in this case, the town had no tornado siren, no access to NOAA weather radio, and no local media outlet to disseminate the tornado warnings. A much smaller tornado--and seven died (three more died across the border in Piedras Niegras, Mexico).

Not much--nothing, really--is left of Greenburg. The business district is all gone, the neat little streets with big trees, the town's famous large meteorite--all gone. But nearly all of its citizens are still around, and hopefully, they'll rebuild the place. But it won't be the same for a long, long time--not my lifetime, certainly--and I wouldn't blame them for making new lives elsewhere. But something tells me these people are tough and will bounce back. I'd guess there's pioneer blood in most of em, at least a lineage that can go back to the hard-luck years of the Dust Bowl, and they look at this as a setback to their lives but not an end to it.

God bless the people of Greenburg, Kansas.

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