The funnel cloud that reminded America to fear tornados

WICHITA, Kans. _ As the 1980s came to a close, meteorologists and weather researchers were asking whether Tornado Alley, the broad lands between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians where the sky turns green and funnel clouds appear, was a thing of the past.

The last half of the Eighties had seen the number of tornadoes drop dramatically _ even in Kansas, "and most of those were weak ones," weather researcher Jon Davies said.

That all changed on March 13, 1990.

A massive outbreak erupted in the heart of Tornado Alley, producing at least 60 tornadoes from Texas to Illinois.

One storm cell produced back-to-back F5 tornadoes _ defined as those with winds of 261 to 318 mph _ near Wichita: one that tore through Hesston and another near Goessel that ranks among the strongest ever recorded.

It was, as Hesston survivor Margo Buscher put it, "an awful day."

The Hesston tornado, which the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service is highlighting as it observes Severe Weather Awareness Week in Kansas this week, also marked the dawn of a new era for tornadoes and the public's awareness of them.

"It was the first video-age tornado," said Mike Smith, president of WeatherData Inc., a Wichita-based private forecasting service and subsidiary of AccuWeather.

People with video cameras shot footage as the tornado approached and tore through Hesston, and that footage drew national attention.

For years afterwards, Russ Buller, Hesston's director of emergency services, would go to conferences around the country and hear, "You're from Hesston? Wow, you had that tornado!"

"We were known all over the country," Buller said.

"Tornadoes didn't just start in 1990, but for some reason, our tornado that day seemed to hit the mark with a lot of people."

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