Tornado Season! Are You Prepared If A Killer Twister Hits Your Town?

March traditionally marks the beginning of tornado season in the United States. Although tornadoes can occur at any time of the year, at any time of the day, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in the South peak tornado season is from March through May, and in the North peak times are during the summer. Some southern states experience a second peak season in the fall. Most tornadoes occur between 3 and 9 P.M. In an average year, 800 tornadoes are reported nationwide.

Because tornadoes frequently occur in rural areas protected by small volunteer fire departments that may or may not be prepared for such emergencies, we asked the chiefs of two such departments - Chief Jim Sekavac of the Hoisington Volunteer Fire Department in Kansas and Chief Barry Carnes of the Pontotoc Volunteer Fire Department in Mississippi - to review their responses and share the lessons they learned when violent twisters struck their communities in 2001. We also solicited information from other fire officers as well as municipal officials and weather experts. The interviews were conducted by Firehouse® Contributing Editor Michael Garlock.

Date Location Fatalities
Feb. 16 Durant, MS 1
Feb. 24 Byron, AR 1
Feb. 24 Pontotoc, MS 6
March 12 Red Level, AL 2
March 15 Wassau, FL 1
April 10 Fulton, MO 1
April 11 Coalgate, OK 1
April 11 Agency, IA 2
April 21 Hoisington, KS 1
May 31 Auburntown, TN 1
June 18 Siren, WI 3
Sept. 24 College Park, MD 2
Oct. 24 La Porte, IN 1
Nov. 23 Hunt, AR 1
Nov. 24 Wilmot, AR 3
Nov. 24 Sledge, MS 2
Nov. 24 Crenshaw, MS 1
Nov. 24 Madison, MS 2
Nov. 24 Kennedy, AL 2
Nov. 24 Sand Rock, AL 2
Nov. 26 Springville, TN 1

Source: NOAA


Rank Wind Speed Damage
F-0 40 to 72 mph Light
F-1 73 to 112 mph Moderate
F-2 113 to 157 mph Considerable
F-3 158 to 206 mph Severe
F-4 207 to 260 mph Devastating
F-5 261+ mph Incredible

Source: National Weather Service

F-4 Tornado Strikes Central Kansas Community

On the evening of Saturday, April 21, 2001, an F-4 tornado unexpectedly struck the small central Kansas town of Hoisington, wreaking horrific damage and causing one fatality.

NOAA Photo Library
Manhattan, KS, May 31, 1949.

An F-4 is defined as a devastating tornado with wind speeds of 207 to 260 mph that causes the following types of damage: well-constructed houses leveled, structures with weak foundations blown some distance, cars thrown and large missiles generated. F-4 to F-5 tornadoes are responsible for 67% of all tornado-related deaths (1950-1994 data), F-2 to F-3s account for 29% and F-0 to F-1 cause 4%. Statistics strongly indicate that the Hoisington tornado should have caused massive injuries and fatalities. Yet, it did not.

The twister itself was also a freak occurrence. Chance Hayes, warning coordinator meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita, KS, said that 80% of all tornadoes are F-0 to F-1, 19% are F-2 and F-3, and only 1% reach the F-4 to F-5 categories. Moreover, only 20% of all supercell-type storms (those that rotate with updrafts) produce tornadoes and again only 1% of those attain F-4 to F-5 wind speeds. The odds of the Hoisington tornado actually developing were astronomical. Yet, it did.

Kansas records about 50 tornadoes per year. The state constitutes one third of "Tornado Alley," the corridor that runs north and south between Nebraska and Texas. Cold air streams down unabated from the mountains and meets hot air from the Gulf of Mexico. The hot air naturally rises into the cold air above it and this causes turbulence and spinning motions. If these motions are strong enough, a tornado is formed.

On the day preceding the Hoisington twister, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for neighboring Ellsworth County to the northeast. One-inch hail had been reported at 12:25 and 12:50 A.M. Hail ranging from 0.88 to 1.75 inches was reported in Saline County, which borders Ellsworth. Also on that day, identical-size hail was reported in Barton County (Hoisington). The appropriate severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Barton County by the National Weather Service.

Clearly, something big was brewing, but in and of itself that was nothing unusual for Kansas. Many developmental factors go into producing a tornado, Hayes said, including squall lines with converging winds. A very particular set of circumstances and conditions has to be in place before a tornado can be created. Not all severe thunderstorms produce them. In fact, the majority do not.

"The storms west of Barton County produced large hail and damaging winds," said Mark Larson, a meteorologist with KWCH TV12 in Wichita. "It was not a classic tornado because it did not show any signs of rotation and did not exhibit the classic signs of a tornado such as tornadic supercell (cumulus nimbus clouds) thunderstorms, on the Doppler radar. The storm could produce a tornado at any time. People were warned to stay indoors because a potentially dangerous situation existed." Because there was no rotation, no tornado warning was issued.

Whereas the National Weather Service is in the business of predicting and prefers to err on the side of caution, its prognostications are enhanced and greatly aided by visual verifications. Although the potential was certainly there, circumstances at the time did not warrant the highest degree of alert.

Located about 100 miles northwest of Wichita, Hoisington is a closely knit farm community of about 3,200 people. Access roads are limited to the two-lane State Road 281 that runs north/south and Kansas 4 that runs east/west. Hoisington is 11/4 miles long from west to east. Most structures are wooden, one story and have basements, although a few homes and commercial buildings are made of brick. There is a small strip mall in the downtown section of Hoisington that is constructed of concrete block.

Severe thunderstorms are not unusual in Kansas, nor are tornadoes. Because severe storms are a fact of life, by in large the citizenry tends to be relatively weather-savvy. Everyone is taught from an early age exactly what safety precautions to take in the event of a tornado. Many of the tornadoes that touch down in Kansas are benign and are a relatively common, if scary, sight.

"Here in the Plains, they're accustomed to tornadoes," Hayes said. "It's almost second nature to them." Accordingly, the citizens of Hoisington went about their normal activities and saw no reason to cancel a high school prom at the Knights of Columbus hall. The F-4 tornado that unexpectedly blasted out of the sky, however, was a classic recipe for disaster whose main ingredients were an unsuspecting populace and a killer twister with winds powerful enough to toss cars and trucks around like toys.

"It was very unusual," Hayes said, "in how quickly it intensified to an F-4. Normally, an F-4 will touch down and be weak. It increases slowly over 15 to 20 miles before reaching its pinnacle. Within one half a mile of touching down this particular tornado produced F-4 winds. It intensified very rapidly. It touched down on the outskirts of town and produced heavy damage. The inflow winds were so strong they blew out windows and doors."

Accompanied by rain, the tornado touched down in south Hoisington at 9:15 P.M. and moved in a northeasterly direction for about two miles. The total path length was five miles and the path width was approximately three-eighths of a mile.

City Manager Allan Dinkel estimated that 20% of the town's 400 houses were damaged or destroyed. The twister skirted the northern part of the business section, damaging 10 businesses, including the town's one grocery store and only motel. The high school was destroyed when its roof collapsed (no one was inside at the time) and Clara Barton Hospital was nearly destroyed when its roof was ripped off. Patients were evacuated to a nursing home or to Central Kansas Medical Center in Great Bend, eight miles to the south, and the hospital closed. The students attending the prom took immediate shelter in the basement of the Knights of Columbus hall until the storm passed. They reported no injuries.

About 900 people were evacuated from homes in the path of the tornado and of those 28 were injured (two critically). There was one fatality, a man who ignored his wife's urging to go down to their storm cellar. The death from massive blunt trauma resulted when the man, who apparently wanted to wait in his living room until the tornado came, lingered too long.

Chief Jim Sekavac, a 31-year veteran of the 17-member Hoisington Volunteer Fire Department and chief for 11 years, said, "It was a typical stormy night with moderate wind, wind and quarter-sized hail. We had storm warnings from 6:30 to 7 P.M. I heard them on my radio. There was a big wall cloud and tornadic action at approximately 8:45 P.M. I got the first report at 9:10 P.M. I was in my house. My radio was on my belt. Then all the clocks stopped. My wife and mother-in-law were sitting in the dining room. Then all the glass picture windows on the east side of the house blew in. As the three of us were heading down the stairs to the cellar, the roof blew off. I grabbed my hand-held and called 911."

The 911 radios went nonstop for 30 minutes. Sekavac's message was heard by other members of the department and they took immediate cover.

"When I came out of my basement, I checked on my family and my neighbors," Sekavac said. "There was a heavy smell of gas in the air. People were coming out of their basements. We carry gas plugs. I grabbed a wrench and started shutting off valves, but it was a lost cause. The local gas company, Kansas Gas, shut off the gas. They operated out of our station. While the gas was shut off, people weren't allowed into the area.

"There was no rotation in the clouds and no warning. Our dispatcher tried to activate the siren, but it was too late. The Central Dispatch System is located in Great Bend. It was overloaded, but held up. The siren was down, streets were littered with debris and we had lots of flat tires." Assistant Chief Ron Stricker, a member of the department for 34 years, heard his chief's 911 call.

"He said his roof was gone," Stricker recalled. "I also heard a police officer on the radio who reported that the windows in his patrol car were blown in. Between 9:15 and 9:30 P.M., we got called to mostly gas leaks. Power lines and power poles were down. Our first response was to send the two pumpers with two men each. Later, we sent the minipumper with two men. The rest of the department stood by at the station. A camper had rolled onto a gas meter and we couldn't shut it off. Because of the massive destruction, calls kept on popping up. There were no fires. "At the corner of 5th and Main we set up a triage center and got a generator for light. A command post was also established at the City Building.

"I stayed at the triage center until ordered to report to the CP at approximately midnight. I left at 3 A.M. and reported back at 6 A.M. … At 6:30 A.M., search teams were organized.

"There were no telephones in the City Building. The local phone company ran a hookup line to the Sprint Building. School buses transported the wounded to the city auditorium where cots were set up. Most of the injuries were caused by flying debris such as wood and glass. Although the cell phones were overloaded, the towers were still standing.

"The area west of downtown was hit by the tornado. A bank, Dairy Queen (where 10 people scrambled into the cooler and rode out the storm even though the Dairy Queen was ripped apart and blown off its foundation), the Town and Country supermarket, two doctors' offices and an attorney's office were demolished. All of the establishments with the exception of the bank were in a strip mall and constructed of concrete block.

"A two-story house one mile east and one mile north of town was cut in half by the tornado. You could see right in it. It looked like a doll's house in that respect. A mile east of here some farms sustained heavy damage."

By this time, fire and EMS crews were pouring in from Albert, Beaver, Claflin, Dorrance, Ellenwood, Elsworth, Galatia, Hays, Kanopolis, Lacrosse, Pawnee Rock and Russell, as well as Ellis and Rice counties. The Region 3 EMS director out of Hutchinson also was present, as was Sheriff Buck Causey.

Chief Mike Napolitano of the Great Bend Fire Department was at the command post.

"Hoisington EMS picked up several people and transported them out of the area," he said. "People were everywhere. We got on the scene and went to the City Building. I sent a battalion chief to determine the area destroyed. Assistant Chief Stricker coordinated with other departments. There was no formal command. All of the departments shared command. The streets were impassible.

"The area demolished was 11 blocks by eight blocks. Several ambulances had flat tires. Becker Tire Company in Hoisington came down to either repair or replace the flat tires. Independent heavy equipment operators came in with high loaders and cleaned the streets."

The primary search and rescue was completed by 1 A.M. There was no tunneling or shoring. Members of the Hoisington Fire Department were asked not to participate in the search because it was believed likely that they would be finding the bodies of friends, neighbors and relatives.

At daylight, an in-depth search was initiated. Cadaver and sniffer dogs from Great Plains Search and Rescue were used. The lone fatality was found.

"The hospital in Hoisington received major damage to the new addition on the east side," Napolitano said. "The hospital was out of commission. Hoisington EMS transported the injured to the Central Kansas Medical Center in Great Bend. From there patients were airlifted by Eagle Mad Air Transport to a larger facility.

"At daybreak, around 6:30 A.M., we started the search and rescue with seven different teams. The area was divided up. We had an impending storm and it was entirely feasible that another tornado could hit us.

"All seven teams were set in with dogs, EMS, and fire and rescue. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation was also present (to document fatalities), as were high loaders. Cars were in basements. Debris was everywhere. It was a real mess. The search and rescue operation was completed by 1 P.M.

"The Kansas National Guard was used for security. The Kansas Highway Patrol and the Barton County Sheriff's Department were also heavily represented. There were just as many law enforcement people as firefighters. Mutual aid arrived within 10 to 15 minutes.

"A creek on the south side of Hoisington by Highway 281 flooded and complicated incoming and outgoing traffic to Great Bend. We didn't have any problems with our communications because we were all on different frequencies and we also used handheld walkie-talkies. Our 911 command acquired them (walkie-talkies) and used them for the search teams. Everything went to the team leader and he communicated with the command post, informing the CP when a specific search had been completed."

Lessons Learned Sekavac said a lot of luck was involved in limiting the fatalities to only one individual. "People were at home when the tornado hit," he said. "There was a scrawl on television screens. People have listened to the sirens in the past. It got very still just before the tornado hit and people had a sense of uneasiness."

Common sense dictated that shelter, in a cellar, bathtub or door frame, be taken immediately, and the survivors of the F-4 twister did exactly what they were supposed to.

"Small fires started and live wires shorted out when the gas and electric were turned back on," Stricker said. "Damaged power lines also arced. However, we were able to take care of our runs."

Napolitano added, "You have to be prepared for the weather, what comes next. The tornado blew everything away. There were no street signs, so initially we had to count streets to ascertain where we were and where we were going. We were able to provide our search teams with maps of Hoisington and that was a big help. It allowed us to identify the names of the intersections and we painted those names and numbers on trees with the same paint we used to mark the houses that had been searched."

The chiefs interviewed cited other lessons that were learned or reaffirmed:

  • Chiefs are sometimes incapacitated for a variety of justified and understandable reasons. Delegation of responsibility through the proper and established chain of command is a vital factor in ensuring that the department continues to perform in expected ways and maintain unit integrity, morale and cohesion.
  • The reduction or lessening of fatalities should not be a total function of luck nor should collective common sense (that cannot be either legislated or enforced) be relied upon. These are bonuses that should not be factored into overall strategy or pre-planning. The maxim, "hope for the best and plan for the worst," is the best plan in the respect that it mentally and logistically prepares departments for worst-case scenarios.
  • When disasters strike in small communities, it is often advisable to excuse members of fire and EMS departments from the usually grisly and always traumatic task of searching for fatalities. There is nothing subtle about tornadoes or how they injure or kill people. One of the major causes of deaths and injuries is due to flying debris. If sufficient manpower is available, individuals without emotional ties to a community can often perform this unenviable but necessary task more efficiently and with less risk of severe post-incident trauma.
  • Conversation was kept to a minimum, reducing the possibility of system overload. Alternative means of communication should be considered. Reliance upon one particular system at best invites chaos and at worst can compromise both rescuer and victim.
  • As is always the case in a tornado's aftermath, the usual visual signifiers in the affected area were gone. Prominent structures were reduced to unrecognizable piles of rubble and street signs were nowhere to be found. The use of quickly copied and easily obtainable maps used by members of mutual aid crews speeded the search and rescue operations. The identification of streets with a few quick brush strokes was an additional time saver.
  • Post-incident fires that occur when gas and/or electricity is turned back on must be taken into consideration. Demolished houses are abandoned, their occupants often in a hospital and the resulting pile of rubble is prime fuel for a fire. Shorted-out wires spark, and bedding, curtains and other flammables smolder and may eventually ignite. Such fires drain already exhausted manpower and divert assets.
  • Access to heavy equipment is very desirable and they are usually present in most towns. One person with a high loader can clear a street a lot faster than 10 people with chain saws. A seemingly nuisance-type thing like flat tires can immobilize and render useless even the biggest of pumpers. Availability of spare tires can save time and lives.
  • Recognition of contingencies and seemingly small things such as maps and taking a few seconds to identify streets on trees often influences the big picture.

Deadly Tornado Hits Rural Mississippi Town

Less than a month after a killer tornado hit the Tuscaloosa, AL, area, another deadly twister corkscrewed into the Mississippi community of Pontotoc on Feb. 24, 2001, leaving six people dead and scores injured (see "On The Job - Alabama," March 2001).

The tornado that devastated the small community in the northeastern part of Mississippi tied for the seventh deadliest in the state's history, coincidentally equaling the fatalities of a storm that also occurred in Pontotoc County on March 16, 1942. (Records and statistics concerning major storms have been kept in Mississippi since 1875.)

Pontotoc is a rural community whose population of 5,500 lives in structures that are wood frame or brick. There are also a fair number of mobile homes. It is approximately midway between Oxford to the west and Tupelo from the east. Access roads are Highway 6 running east/west and Highway 15 running north/south. Interstate 78 leads to Memphis, TN, about an hour's drive.

Running diagonally across the state, the tornado's winds of up to 155 mph affected five counties and cut a swath 23 miles long and up to a mile wide in places before it dissipated.

The National Weather Service said the system moved ahead of a cold front and started as two separate lines of storms while in Arkansas. As they neared Mississippi, the two lines merged into one line of storms. It was from these storms that the tornado spawned.

Tracking began in the Big Creek community of Calhoun County southwest of Pontotoc at around 9:30 P.M. The tornado, which had not touched the ground yet, moved into a northeasterly direction. In Algoma, seven miles south of Pontotoc, it touched down just long enough to destroy Industrial Components, a furniture manufacturing plant, before lifting off the ground. At approximately 10:05 P.M., it touched down and stayed down.

Chief Barry Carnes of the Pontotoc Volunteer Fire Department said that there had been no particularly unusual weather activity before the storm. "During the day, it was cloudy and overcast," he said. "The National Weather Service issued a warning at 9:45 P.M. I live on the north side of town and actually stayed outside. The wind didn't blow on the north side of town. I saw the big white cloud on the south side of town - I thought it might have been the tornado, but I couldn't be sure. There was no rain. We have one siren in town. It's on the firehouse building and it was immediately activated by the one firefighter who was on-duty at the time."

Between 10:15 and 10:20 P.M., all the power went out, Carnes said. He established a command post at the firehouse at 10:30 P.M. and firefighters responded with a rescue truck. "We left the engine in the firehouse because we didn't have any rescue tools on it and there were lots of places that we knew it couldn't get into," he said. "It was too big. Some of our volunteers were already out in their pickup trucks."

The firefighters first went to Tenth and Liberty streets, where there were five fatalities, all attributed to major blunt trauma. Most of the people killed there were in wood-frame houses, the chief said, and there was "nothing left but the dirt." Ten houses were destroyed, and 15 to 20 others were rendered uninhabitable.

"The rescue truck went to a trailer park at the intersection of Highways 41 and 15," Carnes said. "They found one fatality there. The survivors had been literally blown out of their houses and were sitting in their yards."

Thirty-three injured people were taken to Pontotoc Hospital by ambulance and private vehicles between midnight and 3 A.M. Ten people were transferred to North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo and one was sent to the Elvis Presley Trauma Center in Memphis. The injured people suffered from cuts, bruises, broken bones and shock.

Downed trees blocked roads, gas lines ruptured, power lines were down, telephone cables were cut and a 500-foot cable tower lay across 10th Street.

Three hundred sixty homes were destroyed or severely damaged, including Lochinvar, a restored Antebellum home listed in the National Register of Historical Places. Also destroyed was Independent Furniture, in a 200-by-300-foot building, and Traceway Engineering, a 50-by-100-foot structure that housed a tool-and-dye manufacturer. Five businesses were demolished, one business sustained major damage, 42 farm buildings were obliterated and another 35 sustained major damage. Thirty-four vehicles were destroyed.

"We had 22 people on the scene" Carnes said. "The city had five people from Natural Gas, five from the Water Department and five or six from City Streets. The City Streets people were out there with backhoes. We had plenty of chain saws. The search lasted until 2:45 A.M. Most of the structures were flattened. We didn't use any sniffer or cadaver dogs and we didn't do any tunneling or shoring. Engine companies came in from the county and from the cities of Faxton and Hurricane."

The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Mississippi Highway Patrol, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Public Service Commission, Sheriff's Departments of Alcorn County, near the Tennessee line, and Lee County also assisted. Volunteers and emergency response agencies from Chickasaw, Leake, Lafayette and Union counties responded as well.

"We lost communications for one hour," Carnes said. "It's a centralized system that comes out of the Sheriff's Department and is lined to the city police department and all the city and county fire departments. But we never lost our phones. They're on battery backup. We always had truck-to-truck communications."

After leaving Pontotoc the tornado skirted Tupelo and touched down in Guntown around Mississippi Highway 348. Weakened, it struck southwest of Baldwyn along U.S. Highway 45 on Pratts-Friendship Road at 10:30 P.M. By this time, the twister's wind had diminished to between 73 and 112 mph.

Although it did not cause any fatalities, the tornado peeled off the roof of the Baldwyn High School gym and damaged many homes. Wooden bee hives belonging to a honey seller were also ruined.

Carnes and the Pontotoc Fire Department managed their assets with maximum efficiency. Pickup trucks were dispatched to areas that larger, less-mobile vehicles could not access.

Chain saws, axes and other debris-clearing tools were plentiful, Carnes said. Massive mutual aid was forthcoming from sources both within and outside the county.

While the overall communications that originated from central dispatch were somewhat compromised, truck-to-truck communications with the Pontotoc Fire Department was never jeopardized, enabling the firefighters and other rescuers to go about their business proficiently and professionally.

"When the warning siren first went off, I don't know if everybody took it seriously," Carnes said, "They will now."