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‘Something incredible happened last week’: Forecasters credited with saving lives in outbreak with 434 tornado reports

The aftermath of a tornado that tore through the countryside near Linwood, Kan., late last month. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
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Imagine a massive tornado — an atmospheric buzz saw — tearing through your neighborhood with winds of 170 mph. Envision it leaving a path of destruction up to a mile wide and 10, 20 or 30 miles long. Picture this happening twice in two days, with zero fatalities.

Last week marked an incredible milestone in weather, as Dayton, Ohio, and the western Kansas City suburbs suffered violent tornadoes without a loss of life.

The relatively minimal death toll during the United States’ weeks-long tornado swarm is an enormous success story, a testament to how far we’ve come with advanced predictive methods and the ability to disseminate warnings.

In the last two weeks of May, the National Weather Service received 434 reports of tornadoes. There were 14 days in the sequence, 13 of which had at least eight tornado reports, and 10 days of which had 16 or more reported twisters.

Amid the barrage of hundreds of tornadoes stretching from the High Plains to near the nation’s capital, six people died. While any loss of life is tragic, that number is incredibly low, given the magnitude and extent of the destruction left in the storms’ wake. And none of the deaths was associated with two of the most violent (EF4) tornadoes.

“We have a really good integrated warning team,” said Chris Bowman, a meteorologist at the Weather Service office in Kansas City. His office issued a tornado warning nearly 30 minutes before a rain-wrapped EF4 wedge obliterated much of Linwood, Kan., last Tuesday. The National Weather Service office in Topeka had tornado warnings up before the twister even touched down. “We have a great cooperation with the media,” Bowman said, citing days of consistent messaging in getting the word out. “Everybody played a role in keeping people safe.”

With higher-resolution computer models, it’s possible to identify corridors of enhanced thunderstorm risk up to a week before the first storms fire. A prescient Storm Prediction Center outlook six days in advance gave folks in Kansas a heads up that “something” was likely.

Moreover, there was a seamless transition when the tornado crossed from the forecast area of the National Weather Service in Topeka to that of the Kansas City office. Most people probably didn’t know the twister passed this “warning boundary,” thanks to cooperation between the two offices.

The lack of deaths in the Lawrence/Linwood, Kan., EF4 tornado is even more astonishing, given that the tornado was rain-wrapped. The funnel was never clearly visible; at best, it looked like an ominous curtain of heavy rain or hail approaching. An invisible threat could be a recipe for disaster, but not this time.

"The NWS and the broadcast meteorologists in Topeka and Kansas City emphasized that point,” wrote Mike Smith, a retired senior vice president of AccuWeather. “So we did not have a situation where people went outside [waiting until they saw] a typical tornado … and failing to shelter.” Smith referenced the Joplin, Mo., tragedy eight years earlier, when 161 died in a similar rain-wrapped monster on May 22, 2011. This time, the messaging was different. The National Weather Service’s bulletin read: “Heavy rainfall may hide this tornado. Do not wait to see or hear the tornado. TAKE COVER NOW!”

“The broadcast meteorologists we were listening to were simply outstanding,” wrote Smith, whose son lives close to where the tornado struck. “The Topeka and Kansas City meteorologists projected confidence and were on top of the situation the entire time. That confidence made people follow their recommendations.” Smith said the communication and collaboration probably saved lives.

Vanessa Alonso, a meteorologist at KQ2 in St. Joseph, Mo., agreed. “They all stayed calm and kept these communities informed and safe,” she wrote. “Hats off to everyone involved.”

It was the second time in two days that a violent tornado plowed near or through a U.S. metropolitan area. Nineteen hours earlier, another EF4 was ravaging the northern suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. And as in the Kansas City storm, there were no deaths — despite the tornado striking in the dead of night.

During both EF4 storms, the National Weather Service opted to issue a dire “tornado emergency.” It’s the rarest and most significant alert in the NWS’s warning arsenal, and putting it to use spurred action.

“It was an example of how the warning system was supposed to work with exactly the results we wanted,” Smith wrote.

During the two-week onslaught, six deaths did occur — including two in mobile homes on May 25 in El Reno, Okla., from a quick-hitting EF3 tornado. There were also three deaths in a twister in Golden City, Mo., and another fatality in Celina, Ohio. Tornado warnings were in effect at the time of all of the deaths.

It’s been a banner season for illustrating the importance of advanced warnings and communication, demonstrating what’s possible when everything goes right.

“I believe the public realizes something incredible happened last week,” Smith said.