Tornadoes raise memories of 2011's deadly storms

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 29, 2012 

A powerful late-winter storm system mowed across six states late Tuesday and early Wednesday, spawning a series of tornadoes that reminded many of the deadly and costly outbreaks in the Midwest and Southeast last April and May.

Climate experts cautioned that such conditions aren't unusual this time of the year, and that warmer than average temperatures aren't to blame. The most recent outbreak comes nowhere close to the devastation of last spring's tornadoes, which killed more than 500 people.

"One system doesn't make a trend," said Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service storm prediction center in Norman, Okla. "In March and April, we'll see an increase in severe weather."

Over 24 hours, tornadoes touched down in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, killing at least nine people, injuring dozens more and destroying homes and businesses. One tornado hit the country-music resort town of Branson, Mo., where hotels and other businesses sustained damage. At least three people died in southwest Missouri.

"In Kansas, we've had tornadoes at various times of the year," said Sharon Watson, a spokeswoman for the state adjutant general's department, which manages state emergencies. "They're not as common this time of year. But it's not unheard of."

The hardest hit town was Harrisburg, Ill., about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis. At least six people were killed in the town of 9,000. The Category EF-4 tornado, the second-most powerful kind, which pack sustained winds of at least 166 mph, damaged or destroyed more than 300 homes and 25 businesses, according to the Saline County sheriff's office.

Tuesday night, a tornado touched down in Harveyville, Kan., southwest of Topeka, causing damage and injuries but no fatalities. A tornado touched down Wednesday near Elizabethtown, Ky., about 50 miles south of Louisville, but no fatalities were reported, according to the Kentucky State Police. The National Weather Service said a tornado touched down late Tuesday in western Nebraska, which had never recorded a tornado before in February.

The Kansas tornado came with little warning, Watson said, touching down at about 9 p.m. Tuesday.

While the storm damaged about 40 percent of the homes in Harveyville, she said, it couldn't compare to the memorable 2007 tornado that flattened more than 90 percent of Greensburg, Kan, and killed 11 people. In that tornado, she said, residents had 20 minutes to take shelter.

"Sometimes storms come out of nowhere and can happen on a moment's notice," Watson said. "Everyone is aware of the threat, but you just don't know how much warning you're going to have."

Emergency management officials in the states affected said it was too early to know whether the damage warranted a request for federal help. The governors of Kansas, Missouri and Illinois declared their own state emergencies, and would need to request federal disaster declarations from President Barack Obama to get assistance from Washington. A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the agency is in contact with state officials and is ready to provide help if it's requested.

Chip Konrad, the director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the conditions were just right for Wednesday's storms, with warm, moist air surging from the Gulf of Mexico and meeting the jet stream at just the right point to create havoc.

Konrad said such conditions are tough to predict a week out because a number of factors have to come together very quickly to produce strong storms and tornadoes.

Last year's deadly tornadoes may still be fresh in people's minds, but Konrad cautioned that people shouldn't jump to conclusions about the months ahead.

"Last year really stood out," he said. "But just because it happened last year doesn't suggest it's going to happen this year. We'll have to wait and see."

The storm system was forecast to move eastward Wednesday night, the National Weather Service said, bringing thunderstorms, wind gusts and possible tornadoes to eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Mississippi and western North Carolina.

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