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Dodging the Bullet: But Will We Next Time?

Typically, talking about the weather usually signals that a conversation is on its way to fizzling out. Not so, lately. Not by a long shot.

Dominator Storm Chasers in Prowers County on Sunday, May 26, 2019As of Monday, there have been 263 confirmed tornadoes in the United States within 14 days, a full quarter of the total number of tornadoes that hit the nation in an entire year. In Oklahoma, the Arkansas River is more than a mile out of its banks in places, and, in Arkansas, is predicted to crest at 42.5 feet—almost 20 feet above flood stage and 4.5 feet higher than the record set in 1945. Suffice it to say, the word “historic” has probably been used in more weather reports this year than at any other time in, well, history.

Meanwhile, meteorologists speculate that “tornado alley” is slowly shifting to the east, which, if so, spells bad news for states that are relatively unfamiliar with the unpredictable, destructive nature of tornadoes and the hail that often comes in to finish off what the tornadoes didn’t hit. But the notion of a “tornado alley” on the move would be scoffed at (or worse) by the people of neighboring Oklahoma who have been repeatedly pounded with torrential rains and violent, deadly tornadic storms day after day, some measured as EF 3 with winds causing at least 6 deaths and scores of people injured and prompting their governor to declare all 77 counties in a State of Emergency.

Luckily, despite being in the vicinity of tornado alley, southeastern Colorado has managed to miss being hit by the storms. Aside from almost a foot of snow falling in nearby Colorado Springs, this part of the mile high state didn’t make the weather related headlines.

At least, that was the case until last Sunday when it seems that our luck had run out.

A few days before, the National Weather Service (NWS) started hinting that we might in for a bit of a rough ride. Even as late as Saturday night, the forecast called for “a chance of thunderstorms, some might be severe”.

But things got more serious on Sunday morning. The weather maps began to expand the red zone—indicating “likely” area for severe storms—to include Eastern Colorado. The updated NWS forecast warned of 3” hail, winds in excess of 75 mph and “a tornado or two”. As if that wasn’t enough, they also listed four counties that were going to be in the bull’s eye of what was coming: Bent, Baca, Prowers and Kiowa. The forecast predicted conditions going south—actually, from the south to the northeast—around 2pm.

As it turns out, they were in the ball park, more or less.

At 11:17am, the first notice came out in the form of a “Significant Weather Advisory” related to a developing thunderstorm 23 miles from La Junta, moving to the northeast at 50mph. The storm was bringing ½’ hail and winds greater than 40mph. The advisory was set to expire at 12:15, which it did, but not before a Tornado Watch for Southeastern Colorado until 9pm was added.
Radar during Sunday storms; the red dots indicate storm chasers in Kiowa County, Colorado. - Goodland Weather Radar
Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan had things in place. “The entire Sheriff’s office was out,” he says. “Five of us total, including Debi at home monitoring the radar. I had deputies stage in multiple areas to view the storm. Teresa [Emergency Management] was monitoring, as well. I believe eight firemen were spread out, too.”

Over the ensuring couple of hours, it seems that some storm chasers—as in, a lot of storm chasers—were aware of the coming storms, too. Sheridan estimated there were roughly 200 in the area. “Most of them looked like civilian chasers,” he states. “I did see Texas Tech had two huge satellite trucks down here, and there were a lot of vans loaded with people doing ‘tornado tours’.” (Did he say tornado tours?) “I’ve never seen this many chasers at once,” he continues. “One of the chasers told me that this was the only storm system in the U.S. that had the capability of producing a tornado, and that’s why there were so many here.”

Those who saw the vehicles driving along the roads knew immediately who they were. If the huge satellite dishes, whirling antennas and metal plates attached over headlights didn’t provide enough clues, the names painted on the vehicles like STORMCHAZZUH and DOMINATOR 3 probably did the trick.

And then, at 2:26, weather radios in the area came alive with warnings being issued by the NWS, and “it was on”, as the saying goes.

A Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for northwest Prowers, central Kiowa and northeast Bent Counties. The severe thunderstorm was near Wiley, moving north at 40mph and was described as having “large hail, continuous cloud to ground lightning, damaging winds and torrential rains”. Areas of impact were Chivington, NeeNoshe, Queens and Neegronda, and they were told to expect 60mph winds and half dollar sized hail. Those places would be mentioned a lot before the afternoon was over.

At 2:38, just 12 minutes later, a Tornado Warning was issued for northwest Prowers and central Kiowa Counties. A confirmed “damaging” tornado was on the ground over Queens, and the storm was dumping half dollar sized hail. This wasn’t some signature on a radar screen; this sucker was confirmed by human beings (aka trained weather spotters who saw the tornado first hand) and it just doesn’t get more confirmed than that. Plus, those NWS guys weren’t kidding around. The warning said—in all caps—THIS TORNADO IS ON THE GROUND, GET TO SHELTER NOW! Even the mechanical voice on the weather radio sounded like he was yelling.

At 2:49, another Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued for Chivington, packing 60mph winds, torrential rains and 1.25” hail followed by a warning for another severe thunderstorm over Hasty with golf ball sized hail.

That warning had barely finished when, at 3:13, a Tornado Warning was issued for north central Kiowa. A severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado was near Chivington (poor Chivington) with torrential rains and quarter sized hail.

At 3:25, another Severe Thunderstorm Warning went out for a storm near McClave that had golf ball sized hail and 60mph winds. At 3:41, another warning for a storm, also near McClave, with 1.5” hail and 60mph winds.

At 3:55, another Tornado Warning went out. Radar indicated a severe thunderstorm with rotation was near NeeGronda. More torrential rains. More golf ball sized hail.

Then, at 4:07, a Tornado Warning was issued for central Kiowa County. A storm over Sweetwater had produced a tornado along with yet more torrential rains and 1.75” hail.

Three more warnings for severe thunderstorms and then, at 4:45, a final Tornado Warning was issued for a storm 8 miles north of Chivington with hail that was 1.75” in size. At 4:57, the warning expired because the storm moved out of the area.

Kiowa County Colorado Storm Chasers - OU LARRCAlmost an hour passed before a Significant Weather Advisory was issued for (3 guesses) northwest Prowers, central Kiowa and northeastern Bent Counties. The NWS was tracking a line of storms from 6 miles west of Eads to Two Buttes—a distance of 85 miles—and areas of could impact included Eads, Lamar, Wiley, NeeNoshe, Sweetwater, Brandon, NeeGronda, Queens and (you probably got this one, too) Chivington. That advisory expired at 6:30 with no further warnings issued for the night.

By the time the clouds cleared—or, at least, stopped dropping large hailstones and tornadic winds from the sky—a total of 9 tornadoes were confirmed. Two of those tornadoes were in this area. One, spotted at 4:10, was just 4 miles south of Eads.

There’s been some concern expressed about the sirens not going off when the tornadoes were close by. Sheridan explains, beginning with the first tornado that was spotted near Queens.

“The storm was moving northeast at the time,” he says. “As luck would have it, there was a minor accident during this storm that involved two storm chasers. They showed me the radar in their car, and it showed the storm missing Eads to the east and actually coming to our location near CR 49 and Hwy 96. We had to move to safety and let the storm pass through. I felt confident that Eads was safe at the time from tornado activity.” He goes on to describe the second storm. “I was assisting another storm chaser who had slid off the road,” he says. “We looked at his radar, and the path moving was not in the path of Eads. I decided not to sound the siren. I feel we should sound it when there’s an imminent threat to the areas where the sirens are located. We don’t want to cry wolf too many times because, then, no one believes there is a threat when the time comes. We did send out a reverse 911 call to the areas that were in the threat area.”

Reverse 911 is a call system where Kiowa County residents who have registered their cell phone number with the Emergency Management office are notified via text and phone call in the event of an emergency.

Storm Chasing Vehicle in Kiowa County, Colorado - Skywarn Storm VehicleSheridan sums up his approach to the situation. “These were the first two severe storms that moved through our county this year,” he says. “We had many trained spotters out well before the storm hit and during the storm, too, and multiple tornadoes were spotted as the storms moved north into Cheyenne County.”

It’s Sheriff Sheridan’s last statement that probably packs the biggest punch. “Storm season is upon us,” he says, “and we need to be vigilant and prepared to take shelter at a moment’s notice.”

Sunday’s storms were far from what could be called a “dry run”, but, nonetheless, it seems like local officials had their end of things covered well. As far as the rest of us…? Register your cell phone. Stay tuned to what’s going on. And if the siren goes off, trust that it’s going off for a good reason.

 

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