The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G–Part III

Here’s part III of an excerpt from INSIDE THE WEATHER CHANNEL, “The Surfer Dude and Stormmaster G.”

Two of the Best Reasons to Watch The Weather Channel–Part III


Mid-afternoon, May 4, 2007. The Weather Channel’s severe weather expert, Dr. Greg Forbes, is concerned. The NWS’s Storm Prediction Center has issued an outlook for the following day calling for widespread severe thunderstorms, some with tornadoes, over the central and southern Great Plains. It’s drawing a lot of attention. But Greg sees a more immediate, perhaps dangerous, threat erupting within the next few hours and wants to maintain a focus on that.

His heart thumps a little more rapidly as he examines the current meteorological charts and upper-air parameters. Something he’s seen before is emerging, something ominous: the “first punch” of a developing severe weather situation that often turns out to be more devastating than what follows. It’s as if he senses a dark cloud slithering across his psyche.

He takes a deep breath and continues to study the data. Warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico is flooding northward into Kansas; a dry line, marking the leading edge of a dry air mass, hovers over the western portion of the Sunflower State; aloft, a large trough of low pressure over the Great Basin has unleashed a dagger of powerful upper-air winds into the region. It’s a classic set up for particularly destructive twisters. Greg realizes lives may be at stake.

He goes on the air and points out the peril, outlining a small area for a dangerous tornado outbreak later that afternoon and evening: western Kansas. By early evening, reports of twisters are coming in from northwest Oklahoma and southwest Kansas.

Around 8:30 p.m. CDT, a particularly nasty looking storm begins to unleash funnel clouds and tornadoes over the open prairie of Clark County, Kansas, just north of the Oklahoma border. On Doppler radar, Greg begins tracking the thunderstorm that’s triggering the twisters. His sense of dread increases as he watches the storm, what’s known as a supercell, slice northeastward. Around 9 o’clock, he warns that the town of Greensburg in Kiowa County may be in the path of the storm. Forecasters in the Dodge City, Kansas, NWS office have their eyes on the cell, too. They issue a tornado warning for Kiowa County at 9:19 p.m and mention that Greensburg may be in danger.

Greg’s stomach knots as he sees the thunderstorm intensify rapidly as it nears Greensburg. The strength of its rotation increases dramatically; a classic hook-shaped radar echo, the signature of a tornado, emerges. Storm chasers and spotters begin reporting a large tornado, perhaps a mile wide, just southwest of Greensburg. In the business, such a twister is called a “wedge,” because it takes on the appearance of a massive, black triangle with its apex embedded in the ground. The wedge is 20 minutes from Greensburg.

At this point, the NWS declares a “tornado emergency” for the town. A tornado emergency is a strongly worded tornado warning that’s issued whenever a large, particularly violent twister is expected to hit a populated area.

Greg thinks the huge tornado will smash through the southeastern side of Greensburg. On camera, his warning, reflecting his anxiety, tumbles out like a waterfall. Then the situation grows unimaginably worse. The supercell veers toward the center of Greensburg. In the blink of an eye, it’s become a nightmare scenario.

The massive twister is screened by large hail and heavy rain that hammer the town first. The wedge is now over a mile and a half wide and Greg realizes that residents will never see it coming.

In the darkness, only strobes of lightning illuminate the apocalyptic storm as it levels the town.
“I had done all I could,” Greg said later, “but still a feeling of helplessness was there. I wished that I somehow could have moved every citizen out of harm’s way.”

Still, that evening, he harbored the dim hope that the tornado might lift–dissipate–at the last second before reaching Greensburg. As he came back on the air at 10 p.m. after a commercial break, he knew that hadn’t happened. Reports from spotters indicated the tornado had made a direct hit on the tiny town.

“After I reported that,” he said, “[on-camera] meteorologist Paul Goodloe asked me what advice I would give to people in the area. It nearly choked me up. I advised people north and northeast of Greensburg to take shelter. Deep down, what I felt, though, was that prayers were in order.”

Greg slept fitfully that night, knowing what dawn was likely to bring.

And what it brought was confirmation of 11 fatalities and that 90 to 95 percent of Greensburg had been flattened. Quite literally. In fact, Greg was amazed the death toll wasn’t higher. “I could only hope I helped saved some lives,” he said.

Photo: Greensburg, Kansas, May 5, 2007.
90 to 95 percent of the town was destroyed by a massive EF-5 tornado the previous evening.  (Photo from Adjutant General’s Office, State of Kansas.)

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