Reflecting on one of the deadliest tornadoes in recent history - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Reflecting on one of the deadliest tornadoes in recent history

The large, wide path of the Greensburg tornado The large, wide path of the Greensburg tornado
The aftermath (source: NBC News) The aftermath (source: NBC News)
Storm Prediction Center had the plains in a high risk Storm Prediction Center had the plains in a high risk
My former Chief Meteorologist at KSN, Dave Freeman warning the residents of Greensburg to seek shelter My former Chief Meteorologist at KSN, Dave Freeman warning the residents of Greensburg to seek shelter
MEMPHIS (RNN / WMC) -

Imagine a town not even 1 ½ miles wide. Now imagine a tornado, nearly 1 ¾ miles wide passing right over that town. That scenario played out May 4, 2007 and will forever be ingrained in the hearts and minds of many in the great state of Kansas. 9 years ago on this date, the first tornado to ever be rated an EF-5 on that new scale pushed through the town of Greensburg, leaving virtually nothing left.

When the first rays of sunshine hit the decimated buildings the next day, it was apparent that the lives of the nearly 1,200 people that called Greensburg home would be changed forever.

11 people killed. Dozens injured.

For a young meteorologist with not even 3 years of experience, it was an extremely difficult situation to comprehend. True, I had worked some severe weather days and nights prior to May 2007. But most of those touchdowns occurred in areas where chasers went after the twisters (incredible video at times!) and where virtually no people lived. This time was different. Leading up to the end of the week, we knew Friday through Sunday would be bad. My chief, Dave Freeman had been at KSN-TV (Wichita’s NBC affiliate) since the early 90s and saw the writing on the wall a few days leading up to that faithful night.  Nothing could really prepare us for what ended up being a large tornado outbreak that extended from Oklahoma to Colorado, back to Kansas and even as far North as South Dakota.

The set up? A powerful, slow-moving area of low pressure with a warm front attached. On May 4, that low stalled right on top of the plains, dragging in warm and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. This enabled instability-- “fuel to the fire” for rapid severe storm development. Add to that a dry line (the point between a dry and humid air mass) and you had a perfect recipe for extremely powerful storms. They started popping up Friday afternoon, and conditions were ripe for them to explode quickly to severe levels. By early evening, we were tracking large, long-lived tornadoes across multiple areas in Western Kansas. We tracked 20 separate tornadoes that night, including Greensburg’s EF-5. Saturday brought us over 30 more tornadoes, including one that tracked just 2 miles West of Greensburg.

While Dave stayed at the wall and tracked the storms live for most of the night, I served as his information center using our “neighborhood stormcaster” – which you know as “VIPIR” here to find the rotation within the storms. I also ripped and read the confirmations coming to our printer in the weather center live on air.

As a meteorologist tracking severe weather live, your heart starts to beat faster when you read “tornado emergency”. It nearly stops when hours later you read that 11 people have been killed.

Between Friday and Sunday, I worked nearly 45 hours, many of those back to back with little to no sleep.

Since that time, the town has rebuilt and the residents have been committed to preserving the legacy of those who perished.

For this meteorologist who is now about to enter year 12 of tracking storms, I cannot think of another outbreak that even closely measures up to the one of May 4-6, 2007. None that I worked at least. And although it was devastating, professionally I walked away with a new sense of what matters when it comes to tracking severe weather. Tornadic thunderstorms? Find the rotation, get confirmation and track, track, track! Here in the WMC Action News 5 weather center, I am fortunate to use those same tools I learned earlier at KSN (of course they’ve been upgraded plenty since then!) to help identify and track those storms. And I am equally fortunate to work with great meteorologists who have extensive experience using our advanced equipment. Did you know combined, we all have over 50 years of severe weather experience?

While the Mid-South does not fall within the zone typically known as “tornado alley,” we do receive our fair share of severe storms. Do know that when storms break out, you can count on your WMC Action News 5 Weather Team to break in using the experience we gained in the past to bring you the best coverage in the future.

Meteorologist Andrew Kozak

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