The National Weather Service (NWS) has designated March 6-10 as Severe Weather Preparedness Week, and the agency is ahead. An NWS representative helped those gathered in Altamont Thursday night refresh and sharpen their storm identification skills.
NWS Wichita Operational Meteorologist Brad Ketcham spoke to approximately 35 first responders, emergency personnel and citizens about the role storm watchers play in the NWS by issuing accurate weather warnings and public advisories.
As severe weather in Kansas begins to intensify in March, leading to the weather’s three busiest months, April, May, and June, severe weather can strike at any time.
Per capita, Kansas has the most severe weather reports of any state, including tornadoes, flash floods, wind, hail and thunderstorms, Ketcham said.
“The past three years have been relatively quiet in comparison,” Ketcham said. There were 19 tornadoes last year in Wichita’s 26-county office area, Ketcham said. The average is usually around 25 tornadoes a year. In 2020, the worst year for the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas had no tornadoes.
The last time it was this quiet was in the 90s.
“Quiet doesn’t mean we can’t have big tornadoes,” he said. “We cannot be complacent.”
People should stay prepared for bad weather. The city and county storm sirens are only meant to alert people that they are outside and not inside their homes, so Ketcham has encouraged people to have a weather radio or to have their cell phones set up to receive alerts. Wireless emergency alerts are available if people enable them on their phones. Labette County also issues Code Red wireless alerts if someone signs up to receive them. People can visit labettecounty.com/subscribe to subscribe to alerts. Even if the phones are silenced for calls and messages, the phones will ring for weather alerts.
Ketcham also recommended that people have a plan for where to take refuge. Not all storms show up on radar as having tornado activity signatures, and the information can remain unknown until someone on the ground near the storm reports it spinning or funneling, resulting in an alert. The tornado in Andover last year was like that.
If someone cannot reach a shelter, they should move to a place in the house with the most walls between them and the outside of the house. Families are encouraged to put their inclement weather plan into action. The NWS website offers tips on how to be best prepared.
Ketcham said three satellites sent out over the past seven years help deliver images every minute, rather than every 15 minutes, allowing meteorologists to compare those images to radar to make more accurate predictions. However, there are many things meteorologists can’t see on satellite and radar that only storm watchers can broadcast. Observers can report the shape and appearance of clouds, their size and their proximity to the ground.
“The more information we have, the better,” Ketcham said.
He explained the difference in storm types and showed pictures and video to provide visual clues of wall clouds, shelf clouds, supercell thunderstorms, storm lines and microbursts, like the one that hit Oswego a few years ago.
Kansas is home to all types of storms, but it is prone to supercell storms that can spawn tornadoes and large hail and do the most damage, as those storms are self-sustaining and can stay alive for a very long time.
For example, Ketcham pointed to the December 2021 tornado in Kentucky that traveled 130 miles, cutting a large swath of damage in numerous cities.
While reporting cloud formations that can lead to tornadoes and reporting tornadoes on the ground are important, Ketchum said that more people are killed each year in Kansas by flash flooding than by all tornadoes in the United States.
“Flash floods are the least reported severe weather conditions,” Ketcham said. “We usually don’t hear about it until someone has gone into it.”
What the NWS wants weather watchers to report immediately are any tornadoes on the ground, any hail, any winds believed to be stronger than 58 miles per hour (tree branch breaking), and flash flooding.
For those who watch storms, Ketcham advised people to:
—Stay out of the way of the storm.
—Stay out of harm’s way.
—Have good visibility.
—Give yourself an escape route.
He also suggested avoiding gravel/dirt roads and sticking to paved roads.
“If you have to crane your neck to watch the storm, you’re too close,” Ketcham said.
Ketchum encouraged attendees to call for tornadoes and other severe weather reports at 1-800-367-5736. This number is only for incoming severe weather reports. This is not a number to check the weather.
He also encouraged those familiar with Facebook and Twitter to take a photo of the storm clouds and tweet them and other relevant information to the NWSWichita #KSWX Twitter account. The information provided by a spotter should include your name, the time and location the spotter is taking the photograph, and other details such as the movement of the storm system. The Facebook account is www.facebook.com/NWSWichita.
To keep tabs on the weather online, area residents can visit weather.gov/Wichita. There are information packs in the upper left corner discussing expected severe weather conditions.
Labette County Director of Emergency Management Charlie Morse said the county pulls severe weather reports from that site and posts them on its Facebook page to alert area residents.