Fury in the Flint Hills: Meteorology, emergency readiness disciplines make great strides

Look back in time, and it's hard to think of many disciplines that have transformed as dramatically over the past 40 years as severe weather forecasting and government-level emergency preparedness.

Both have come a long way, and a lot of that has to do with technology according to Emporia Police Chief Scott Cronk.

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Cronk says city and county leaders conduct joint exercises frequently, and when the weather turns bad pre-planning meetings happen regularly. But Cronk says  this approach is also used in other areas.

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Those partnerships sometimes need extra layers of help, like the recovery effort after the Reading tornado three years ago. Lyon County Undersheriff John Koelsch says the state has partnerships with counties to speed aid to where it's needed. And partnerships extend elsewhere as well.

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The Reading twister and the Harveyville tornado in 2012 pointed out the emergency response partnerships and also the major changes in weather forecasting. National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Harding says advances in radar technology are now being noted with the "phased-array" setup, where multiple beams can glean information in any number of directions instead of the current radar technology. And meteorologists can now discern some smaller-scale conditions needed for the big twisters -- the EF3s, the EF4s, the EF5s. However...

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Another mystery now are the small-scale thermodynamics, meaning small temperature and humidity differences which apparently have a big say in whether a supercell spins up a tornado or not.

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Tornado research truly didn't start until the late 1940s, when E.J. Fawbush and R.C. Miller successfully created a tornado forecast for Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City. Another research pioneer, Ted Fujita, created the original damage intensity scale that bears his name -- and Harding says he used the 1974 Emporia tornado to help in that effort.

Warning lead times, meanwhile, have grown from three minutes in 1974 to around 15 minutes now, and Harding is among those working to extend that to an hour or more. Koelsch, who suffered property damage during a small tornado that brushed Emporia's east side last year, says it's critical for people to heed warnings when they are issued.

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Emergency preparedness locally is ongoing, and Cronk says plans are under discussion to add a tornado siren on the Emporia State University campus as well as to tap into a new public address system coming to downtown Emporia soon -- all in an effort to avoid the horrors of June 8, 1974.

KVOE News wants to thank the National Weather Service and the Topeka Capital-Journal for use of their archives as part of this online series. KVOE News also wishes to thank area residents who called KVOE's On-Air Chat on June 4, 2014, and those who have posted their memories on KVOE's Facebook page to share their stories of the Emporia tornado of June 8, 1974.


Fujita rating: F4 (estimated wind speeds 207-260 mph)
Path length: 38 miles
Path maximum width: 0.50 miles
Forward speed: 38 mph
Deaths: 6
Injured people: 200
Damage estimate: $25 million (1974 dollars)

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