By Stan Finger, Wichita Journalism Collaborative
As the coronavirus pandemic set in last March, closing schools and businesses and filling hospitals with critically ill patients, Keri Korthals found herself wrestling with a terrifying question.
“What if a significant tornado were to occur in the middle of our COVID adventure?” she asked. It wasn’t just a hypothetical for Korthals, the emergency management director for Butler County just east of Wichita. A devastating EF5 tornado struck Haysville, Wichita and Andover on April 26, 1991, killing 17 people and injured dozens more. That disaster prompted Butler County officials to establish its emergency management division.
Kansas has had more EF5 tornadoes — the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which measures tornado strength — than any other state since formal record-keeping began in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.
“Believe me, it’s been weighing on our minds,” Korthals said. “We’ve discussed internally just within our county and then with our (emergency management) partners as well: ‘Had we had overlapping disasters here, how would we have actually pulled that off in the middle of a pandemic?’”
In a year filled with the wrong kinds of firsts, 2020 delivered a welcome surprise: an astonishingly quiet year for tornadoes in Kansas.
Only 17 tornadoes touched down in the Sunflower State in 2020, the lowest total in nearly half a century. For the first time since official records began being kept 70 years ago, not a single tornado touched down in the 26 counties of southeastern Kansas included in the warning area of the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service.
“It’s definitely shocking,” said Jeff Hutton, warning coordination meteorologist for the Dodge City branch of the weather service.
Of the tornadoes that did form in Kansas this year, Hutton said, the vast majority of those were landspouts — weak, short-lived tornadoes — and almost all were in remote sectors of the western part of the state.
To put 2020’s paltry number in perspective, Kansas has averaged 94 tornadoes a year over the past decade and 89 over the past 30 years. The Sunflower State hasn’t had a tornado total this low since 14 in 1976 and 16 in 1977, Hutton said.
But comparing modern tornado data with numbers from decades ago is “like apples and oranges,” Hutton said. Modern tornado counts are higher — and more accurate — because, for one thing, there are countless storm chasers out in the field providing confirmation of tornado touchdowns.
Radar technology is much more sophisticated, able to detect brief tornadoes that develop on the leading edge of squall lines. Many tornadoes were not counted decades ago, Hutton said, because unless someone happened to be there to see them, they went unreported.
All of which makes 2020’s twister tally even more remarkable, he said.
It wasn’t just Kansas, either. Oklahoma only had 29 tornadoes in 2020 and Texas 97, according to preliminary data gathered by the Storm Prediction Center. Both figures are far below normal for those states. Weather officials don’t know why there were so few tornadoes in the nation’s heartland this year.
“There were still a lot of supercell thunderstorms” — the storms most likely to produce tornadoes – “and those produced plenty of rain and hail,” Hutton said. “Something was not quite right” to produce tornadoes.
Meteorologists have a solid grasp of how tornadoes form, but field studies in recent years indicate conditions near the ground’s surface play a larger role in either triggering or stifling tornado development than previously realized.
Weather officials and emergency managers around Kansas recognize they caught a huge break with the quiet tornado year during the coronavirus pandemic. But Korthals said she cringed when she learned that it will likely be next summer before vaccines are widely available to the general public.
That means Kansas will have to go through another spring with COVID remaining a significant concern. While tornadoes can form any month of the year in the Sunflower State, the most active months for tornadoes are typically April and May.
“First and foremost, one of our concerns was that the folks that would respond to a tornado disaster…or any kind of natural disaster…is going to be that same core group of people that are dedicated to fighting the pandemic right now,” Korthals said. “We’ve already pretty much tapped those folks to the limits. To then say, ‘I know that you’re working 80 hours a week trying to address this pandemic, but do you have any extra hours to spare so that we can work on this tornado disaster, too?’”
Last June, FEMA released a plan for handling a mass care and emergency assistance event during the pandemic. That plan was put into action by several southern states battered during an active hurricane season, Sedgwick County Emergency Management director Julie Stimson said.
“It is great fortune we had so few tornadoes this season,” Stimson said in an email response to questions.
Emergency management officials are looking at the viability of putting out regional calls for first responders in the event of a major tornado event, Korthals said, in much the same way nurses from around the country answered the call to help hospitals hit hard in the early months of the pandemic on the East Coast.
Beyond manpower challenges, the pandemic has forced emergency managers to completely revise how they would be able to respond to a substantial natural disaster such as a tornado or a flood.
“Normally, when you’re working a tornado, that’s close contact, whether it’s the folks that are out doing the search and rescue, clearing the debris, manning the mass feeding areas, running the shelters, doing the Family Assistance Centers,” Korthals said. “You realize you’re not going to be able to pull that same thing off in the middle of a pandemic. All those things have to be rethought.”
Conference calls have been held with the American Red Cross to discuss how to activate an emergency shelter in the event of a natural disaster, she said.
“Rather than putting everybody on cots in a gym in close quarters, what if we find someplace like a hotel that we can rent out a wing or an unused dormitory someplace where we can still provide shelter, and we can still provide care and feeding, but folks aren’t right on top of one another?” she asked. “They each have their own space, separated out, so we’re not creating this atmosphere for the virus to run rampant.”
Emergency operations centers have been operating remotely since the pandemic set in, Korthals said, and officials have discovered efficiencies that can be utilized beyond the pandemic.
“It’s been like, ‘I didn’t know that system was out there for communicating or sharing data,’” Korthals said. “Now we’re in that position where we get to try some new toys and try some new platforms.
“There’s a level of efficiency there that we hadn’t realized was possible before. And that would especially be valuable in a time like Greensburg.”
The Kiowa County seat of Greensburg was virtually wiped off the map by a massive tornado on the night of May 4, 2007. The last EF5 tornado recorded in Kansas, the wedge-shaped monster was 1.7 miles wide when it damaged or destroyed 95 percent of the town of 1,500 residents shortly before 10 p.m. Eleven people were killed and nearly 70 more injured.
The proliferation of virtual meetings in response to the pandemic means officials in far-flung regions of the state no longer have to converge somewhere for a thrown-together face-to-face meeting.
“You don’t have to wait for everybody to come in from where they’re at to attend the briefing to provide their input,” she said. “It’s just ‘Bam! We’re having this briefing now.”
That can speed up decision-making and getting necessary supplies and equipment moving where they need to be more quickly, she said. Weather officials know that 2021 won’t necessarily be a sleepy tornado season in Kansas just because 2020 was.
“Even though we’re so consumed with the pandemic right now, we do have to be doing that forward thinking saying, ‘If we’re not clear of this pandemic yet, by the time the next storm season rolls around, what do we have to have ready?’
Officials have long recommended that residents have a “go kit” prepared in the event their home is damaged or destroyed by a tornado. The Red Cross recommends that the kit hold a three-day supply for each person of weather-appropriate clothes, nonperishable food, drinking water, necessary medications, as well as a flashlight with batteries and a cellphone with charger.
Emergency managers may well recommend some additions with the pandemic in mind, Korthals said: facemasks, for instance, and a fresh supply of hand sanitizer. Those adjustments are still being worked out.
“I would just bet money that we’ll have more than 17” in 2021, Hutton said. “But it doesn’t matter. What if we just have one, but that one goes through Wichita or Hutchinson?”