Intense Kansas weather becomes part of nation's history

From the deadliest year for tornadoes in decades to a heat wave so intense and enduring that Wichita and several other Great Plains cities broke records for most 100-degree days, 2011’s weather seared itself into our nation’s collective memory.

Wichita even set a record for largest gap between the year’s lowest and highest temperatures: 128 degrees.

“Clearly, for me, the tornadoes were the big story this year,” said Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions in Wichita.

And for good reason: The 552 people killed nationwide by tornadoes this year is the most in 75 years.

“I don’t think anybody could anticipate that could happen in the modern era,” said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

This year’s tornado-deaths total matches 1936 and trails only 1925 in the archives.

Smith called the 552 deaths “a staggering number.”

Yet 99 percent of this year’s tornado-related deaths occurred in locations that were in both a tornado watch and a tornado warning, Smith said.

Sometimes those warnings were not received because of something such as a power outage. Sometimes the information simply wasn’t acted upon, he said. And sometimes people just couldn’t get to shelter in time.

Still, Smith said, if not for such accurate watches and warnings, the tornado death toll for 2011 could easily have topped 3,000.

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