Archive for Thursday, May 8, 2008

Against tall odds, still waiting to see twister

May 8, 2008

As the sirens howled last week, I stood on the deck, faced the southwest and scanned the skies, to no avail. No wall cloud, no descending funnel, nothing but a few raindrops and the sun peeking under a bank of clouds off to the west.

Understand, I'm not complaining. I'm sure the folks up in Gladstone or wherever else the storms wrought havoc, moving entire houses off their foundations, would gladly have traded places with me, and I'm equally sure that if I had seen destruction bearing down on me I would have been anything but pleased.

As a native Kansan with almost 40 years in the news business, I suppose I'm as aware as anyone of the potential destructive power of the wind. I've covered tornadoes and their aftermath, and I've kept vigil with storm watchers on remote country intersections, watching for tell-tale signs of imminent mayhem.

But I've never actually seen a tornado. It seems like the law of averages would catch up with me at some point, but it hasn't yet. Although I understand that actually seeing a tornado would have the potential of being entirely too much of a good thing, I confess that I am nevertheless a little disappointed.

I've been close by on several occasions - but no cigar, as the saying goes.

On May 20, 1957, a tornado cut a 71-mile swath across Kansas, ending its path of destruction at the Ruskin Heights community in south Kansas City. In the end, 44 people were killed and about 500 were injured. We lived in Roeland Park at the time, and I remember sitting in the basement, making occasional trips out into the yard to see if we could see anything. We couldn't, of course.

Either that summer or the next, I was working for a farmer in western Kansas when one passed close by again. I remember that a couple of us were transferring just-harvested wheat from trucks into a granary when a storm blew up. Later, we heard that a tornado had passed about half a mile west of us, tearing up some fuel tanks at a service station on the highway. We hadn't seen a thing.

Tornadoes are the spawn of colliding masses of cold and warm air. In some cases, thunderstorms develop in warm, moist air in advance of eastward-moving cold fronts. Or, during the spring, thunderstorms frequently develop along a "dryline," which separates warm, moist air to the east from hot, dry air to the west, and tornadoes sometime occur as the dryline moves east in the afternoon. (All this, by the way, is attributable to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information about tornadoes and what to do to protect yourself against them, visit

And while we're on the subject, here's another problem. The rule used to be that the National Weather Service declared a tornado watch when conditions existed that made it possible for tornadoes to occur, but the warnings (and hence the sirens) were only given when someone had actually seen a funnel cloud. The new rules permit the issuance of warnings once the presence of a tornado is indicated with the more sophisticated radar in use today. What happened last week was that the sirens were blowing after the storm had long since passed to the north of us. If this happens too often, people may lose confidence in the warning. It's probably just as well to remember the story of the little boy who cried "wolf" too often.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting. Maybe I'll have to go on one of those tours, racing pell-mell across the countryside in pursuit of the elusive funnel cloud.


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