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

Michael Garlock interviews fire chiefs and others who share the lessons they learned when their communities suffered the effects of deadly tornadoes.


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...


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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.

KILLER TORNADOES
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

THE FUJITA SCALE

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.

3_02_tornado1.jpg
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.

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