Tornado outbreak May 2003

Brian E Erwin

Nineteen years ago, on May 4th one of the strongest tornadoes to ever hit the Kansas City metro occurred. Winds more than 200 mph ripped through houses, apartments, and businesses in communities such as Kansas City, Kansas, Riverside, Parkville, and Liberty, Missouri. Four twisters were reported across the KC area from a supercell thunderstorm that tracked east northeast across the KC metro. The F4 twister packed winds near 200 miles per hour as it was cycling up and down through the northwestern part of the Metro.

This was part of a large outbreak that was prolonged and destructive. Most of the severe activity was concentrated between May 4 and May 10, which saw more tornadoes than any other week-long span in recorded history. There were 338 tornadoes concentrated in the Ozarks and central Mississippi River Valley. Additional tornadoes were produced by the same storm systems from May 3 to May 11, producing 401 tornadoes overall.

On April 30, meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) noted the likelihood of a major tornado outbreak across a large area of the Central and Eastern United States for the period of May 2–6. Ahead of the most active day, the SPC issued a rare high-risk outlook for severe weather across eastern Oklahoma, eastern Kansas, western Missouri, and northwestern Arkansas.

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May 2003 Severe Weather ThreatSPC

A very rare "High Risk" was issued on April 30th for the KC area. This was issued several days out.

A total of 127 severe weather watches and 4,050 warnings (2,960 severe thunderstorms and 1,090 tornados) were issued from May 4. Of the watches, 25 were classified as Particularly Dangerous Situations, a type of watch reserved for the most life-threatening events. The issuance of such watches resulted in an average lead-time of 2 hours and 3 minutes for fatal tornadoes. Seven of the eight fatal tornadoes occurred within a high-risk outlook area, with the eighth just outside in a moderate-risk area. An average of 12 watches were issued each day; May 6, 8, and 10 saw more than 20 each. Watches were continuously in effect from 16:40 UTC on May 4 through 12:00 UTC on May 9. May 6 saw the greatest number of advisories with a record 921 warnings. The SPC and the National Weather Services offices in Kansas City, Springfield, Memphis, Paducah, and Oklahoma City received a letter of praise signed by 11 members of the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology commending their high-quality service during the event. Furthermore, the SPC webpage received an average of 5.6 million views per day during the outbreak.

During the first half of May 2003, atmospheric conditions across the Central and Southeastern United States proved exceptionally favorable for widespread severe weather. Warm, moist air flowed northward from the Gulf of Mexico across the Central United States and reached as far north as Missouri. This created a very large warm sector. The airmass behind a warm front and ahead of a dry line–for thunderstorms to develop within. This was breading ground that resulted in the outbreak outside the climatological maximum area for twisters in May. Additionally, the northward surface winds or the upper-level jet stream blew almost perpendicularly. This created very strong wind shear across much of the central United States. There were also several shortwave troughs that initiated tornadic events throughout the outbreak. As severe weather shifted east across the country, another trough would cross from the Pacific to the Central United States and reignite activity. All of these factors came together to form "The Perfect storm," in the prolonged nature of the outbreak. Throughout this period, no cold fronts propagated south from Canada; the lack of these allowed the atmosphere to continually destabilize and fuel further thunderstorms. The pattern finally ceased on May 11–12 with the active pattern shifting to New England the formation of a ridge over the Rocky Mountains. This event was classified as a tornado outbreak sequence—a "continuous or near-continuous sequence of tornado outbreak days"—with only three historical events of comparable longevity and severity according to data compiled by Thomas P. Grazulis. May 2003 ultimately became the most active month for tornadoes in recorded history until it was later surpassed by April 2011

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Kansas City EF4 Tornado May 4th 2003Photo by: Woodlands Surveillance 2003

Northern parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area suffered heavy damage from tornadoes on May 4 in what was considered the most significant outbreak for the region since 1977. Five tornadoes occurred in the northland suburbs of Kansas City, of which four were caused by a single supercell; the strongest of these was classified as an F4. All flights via Kansas City International Airport were halted and passengers in the terminals were evacuated underground into tunnels for a half-hour. At the height of the storms, the Kansas City Power and Light Company reported that 33,000 of its electricity customers were without power, including Providence Medical Center where 22 persons were treated for injuries. Despite the severity of the tornadoes and the populations affected, Lynn Maximuk of the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Pleasant Hill, Missouri credited the partnerships between the National Weather Service and local emergency and media crews for the relatively low number of casualties.

The first tornado in the Kansas City area touched down in Leavenworth County, Kansas, and was first noted by Fort Leavenworth officials at around 3:45 p.m. CDT. Initially, the tornado remained over the country but began damaging structures after crossing the Missouri River into Platte County, Missouri near the intersection of Missouri Route 92 and North Farley Road. There, sixteen homes experienced minor damage, with the tornado producing a maximum of F1 damage over its 3 mi (4.8 km)-long and 50 yd (46 m)-wide track. North of Route 92, major damage to two barns and nearby damage to trees and fences was assessed by survey crews to have been caused by downburst winds from the parent thunderstorm.

A succession of four tornadoes from the same thunderstorm in Kansas City area began with the touchdown of an F2 tornado in southern Leavenworth County at approximately 3:54 pm. CDT. The 6 mi (9.7 km)-long damage path extended from northwest of Linwood, Kansas to the south of Basehor, Kansas, with the worst damage occurring to homes near the intersection of 166th Street and Kansas Road. Two people were injured by the tornado.

The second tornado—the strongest of the Kansas City tornadoes—began north-northwest of the Kansas Speedway at 3:54 pm. CDT in Wyandotte County, Kansas, initially producing F0–F1 damage. However, the tornado quickly grew in size and intensity, causing F3 damage to two homes south of Parallel Parkway near Interstate 435 and expanding to a width of over 500 yd (460 m). Low-end F4 damage was observed near the intersection of 91st Street and Leavenworth Road; one fatality occurred nearby within a region of F2–F3 damage. The tornado continued into the northeastern portions of Wyandotte County where the twister produced the second region of low-end F4 damage near 79th Street and Cernech Road. Four 150 ft (46 m)-tall metal power poles built to withstand winds in excess of 200 mph (320 km/h) were damaged there. The tornado remained damaging but weakened over the remainder of its path, causing F1–F2 damage along the Missouri River across both Wyandotte County and Platte County in Missouri. The tornado crossed into Platte County near Riverside and Parkville, Missouri at around 4:30 p.m. where it caused damage over a narrower expanse to commercial areas. F1-rated damage was observed after the tornado crossed Interstate 635 before lifting east of the highway at 4:42 pm. CDT in Clay County, Missouri.

Overall, the F4 tornado killed two people and injured another thirty; one woman succumbed to her injuries seven months later. Communities in its path incurred a $47.5 million damage toll to property, of which $32 million occurred in Wyandotte County and $15.5 million occurred in Platte County. A total of 83 buildings were destroyed and another 582 sustained at least some degree of damage.[17][18]

A new circulation developed northeast of the first F4 tornado and developed into another F4 tornado that impacted the Gladstone, Missouri area between 4:45–5:00 pm. CDT. Initial damage was wrought to tree and roofs near Shady Lane and Antioch Road, with the severity rated F1. Intensification was quick thereafter, with marginal F4 damage noted in the Carriage Hills subdivision. Roofs and windows were damaged and business signage was destroyed. The tornado continued towards the northeast, causing F1–F3-rated damage before dissipating near Interstate 435; the total damage toll amounted to $31 million and 13 people were injured.

The final tornado in the Kansas City region on May 4 impacted the Liberty, Missouri area and was the costliest of those in the metropolitan area. Rated F2, the tornado caused substantial damage at William Jewell College and at locales near downtown Liberty before lifting around 5:15 pm. CDT over rural areas of Clay County. The most severe damage covered a swath that included eastern parts of the college campus and areas along Excelsior Springs Road, overall damage was 60 million.

Sources for this article include:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tornado_outbreak_sequence_of_May_2003#Confirmed_tornadoes

Thompson, Richard L.; Smith, Bryan T.; Grams, Jeremy S.; Dean, Andrew R.; Broyles, Chris (October 2012). "Convective Modes for Significant Severe Thunderstorms in the Contiguous United States. Part II: Supercell and QLCS Tornado Environments" (PDF). Weather and Forecasting. American Meteorological Society. 27 (5): 1136–1154. Bibcode:2012WtFor..27.1136T. doi:10.1175/WAF-D-11-00116.1. Retrieved May 15, 2019.

Hamill, Thomas M.; Schneider, Russell S.; Brooks, Harold E.; Forbes, Gregory S.; Bluestein, Howard B.; Steinberg, Michael; Meléndez, Daniel; Dole, Randall M. (April 2005). "The May 2003 Extended Tornado Outbreak". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. American Meteorological Society. 86 (4): 531–542. Bibcode:2005BAMS...86..531H. doi:10.1175/BAMS-86-4-531.

Record Tornado Outbreaks of May 4–10, 2003 (PDF) (Report). Service Assessment. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. December 2003. Retrieved May 27, 2019.

Schneider, Russell S.; Brooks, Harodl E.; Schaefer, Joseph T. Tornado Outbreak Sequences: Historic Events and Climatology (1875–2003) (PDF). 22nd Conference on Severe Local Storms. Norman, Oklahoma: Storm Prediction Center. Retrieved June 5, 2019.

National Climatic Data Center (January 2012). State of the Climate: Tornadoes for Annual 2011. Climate Monitoring (Report). State of the Climate. National Centers for Environmental Information. Retrieved May 16, 2019.

National Climatic Data Center (2019). "Weather and Climate Billion-Dollar Disasters to affect the U.S. in 2003 (CPI-Adjusted)". Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Table of Events. National Centers for Environmental Information. Retrieved May 16, 2019.

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Scott, David (May 5, 2003). "At least 22 killed in region's twisters". Springfield News-Leader. Springfield, Missouri. Associated Press. p. 5A. Retrieved June 5, 2019 – via Newspapers.com. open access

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National Weather Service Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri (May 8, 2003). NWS Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri Public Information Statement. National Weather Service Raw Text Product (Public Information Statement). Pleasant Hill, Missouri: Iowa State University.

Scott, David (May 5, 2019). "Tornadoes hit Kansas, Missouri". The Hays Daily News. Hays, Kansas. Associated Press. pp. A1, A6. Retrieved June 5, 2019 – via Newspapers.com. open access

Hudson, Michael J. (May 7, 2003). "National Weather Service Assigns Fujita Damage Ratings to May 4th Tornadoes in the Kansas City Metropolitan Area" (Press release). Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Retrieved June 5, 2019.

Kansas Event Report: F1 Tornado (Report). National Centers for Environmental Information. National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

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Missouri Event Report: F4 Tornado (Report). National Centers for Environmental Information. National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

Missouri Event Report: F4 Tornado (Report). National Centers for Environmental Information. National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Kansas City/Pleasant Hill, Missouri. 2003. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

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Rao, Nina; Eckert, Eric; Fillmer, Jenny (May 5, 2003). "Rare conditions whip up multiple storms". Springfield News-Leader. Springfield, Missouri. pp. 1A, 5A. Retrieved June 5, 2019 – via Newspapers.com. open access

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