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Jaime Oppenheimer/The Wichita Eagle

On the Road - Tornado Alley

Heading Directly Into the Heart of Tornado Country


It is just a handful of miles from Mullinsville to Greensburg, Kansas but far enough that while the former was spared, the latter had been almost totally destroyed by an EF5 tornado - the strongest possible - on May 4, 2007, not quite a year earlier.

I’ve come into Greensburg totally unprepared for what I’m about to see. The road leading up into town takes me up a slight rise. On my left is the prototypical silo rising high into the sky. Everything seems normal until I reached an intersection where Highway 400 crosses a smaller road.

By Ray Ford

The first thing I notice when I drive into Greensburg are the trees. The stumps and larger limbs are still there but all of the lesser branches have been ripped off leaving a scene that Edvard Munch might have included in his painting The Scream had he experienced the destruction here.

The second thing that hits me is the wide open space. With the exception of a building here and there, there is nothing from block to block. I’m looking straight down 10-12 city blocks and there’s nothing there.

Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle

I’ve got the Weather Channel on XM Radio and the focus is on tornadoes. While I’m looking over this scene of overwhelming destruction here, there is a tornado watch for much of the Southeast. This is the night the roof will be torn off the top of the CNN headquarters. This is extremely unsettling - there’s something about the concept of a tornado that is way more terrifying than anything I’ve experienced before, especially when they are not too far away.

When I reach what ought to be the safety of my motel a bit further down the road in Kingman, Kansas I’ve got the news on before the door’s shut. I’m wondering - where’s the basement? Knowing that there isn’t one unsettles me even further. Tonight, though, I’m lucky. The storm track is taking the storms east from Texas across upper Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. I’m safe for the moment but those in downtown Atlanta won’t be so lucky.

Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle

Not quite a year ago, about the same time of night I’m watching the weather news, residents of Greensburg had finished dinner, enjoyed dessert and perhaps watched a TV show or two when the sirens went off. For those who had been watching the storm’s progress on the Weather Channel, they could see it coming.

First, the tornado struck Sweetwater, Oklahoma, about 8:15 p.m. Saturday, causing major damage to a high school and other buildings.

The tornado came through and just dead-center punched Sweetwater,” Roger Mills County Sheriff Joe Hay told KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City. He said there was extensive damage but just one minor injury in the tiny town.

The storm then continued to grind its way north through northwestern Oklahoma toward Kansas for more than 45 minutes. At KOCOl, Matt Leinbauer was reporting on damage from another confirmed tornado just east of Arnett, Oklahoma.

Tornado warnings continued throughout the night in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. Flood warnings and watches were in place for South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

This is a particularly dangerous situation,” the National Weather Service said.

The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center said more than 60 tornado touchdowns had been reported on Saturday - 40 of them between 6 and 9 p.m. Central Time.

Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle

At 9:45 p.m. CDT the Sweetwater tornado roared through Greensburg. Estimated to be 1.7 miles in width, ninety-five percent of the city was confirmed to be destroyed, with the other five percent being severely damaged. The tornado sirens that had sounded throughout Greensburg twenty minutes earlier undoubtedly this saved many lives but by dawn the next day destruction both to property and lives lost (ten) was beyond belief.

My town is gone,” Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt said after surveying the wreckage earlier Saturday. “Downtown buildings are gone, my home is gone, and we’ve got to find a way to make this work and get this town back on its feet.”

Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle

Katie White told The Associated Press she was driving through Greensburg when she heard the tornado warning. She and several others took shelter in the store’s walk-in freezer, the AP said. When they came out, White said, the store was gone.

I’m paraphrasing this and using direct quotes from a CNN article on the tornado the day after it struck Greensburg. I’ve also watched a YouTube video that is particularly disturbing. I’ve not really spent much time thinking about tornados but the programs I’ve seen on the storm chasers have romanticized the phenomenon.

I am most definitely in the “no fun” zone right now and I don’t like it. Tomorrow I’m heading further south into Oklahoma and then on to the Ozarks, right into the center of what the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore is telling me will be tomorrow’s storm front.

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