Severe weather can strike anywhere anytime. So much time has passed since a tornado last struck Jackson County, however, that the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Kansas City/Pleasant Hill office, Andy Bailey, is concerned “people might let their guard down.”
But he and the KC/Pleasant Hill office’s Meteorologist-In-Charge, Julie Adolphson, credit county officials for continually keeping their guard up. Jackson County is now one of only 27 counties in Missouri (out of 114) to earn the National Weather Service’s StormReady designation. The Weather Service defines a StormReady community as being “better prepared to save lives from the onslaught of severe weather through advanced planning, education and awareness.”
“No community can be made storm proof,” Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders said, “but we have an obligation to make ours as storm-ready as possible. “We don’t want our citizens being complacent. Any day of the year can bring severe weather to our area. Remember eastern Missouri getting hit by tornadoes on New Year’s Eve 2010?” Sanders accepted the StormReady certification from Adolphson during a news conference at the Independence/Eastern Jackson County Emergency Operations Center on Monday – the first day of Severe Weather Awareness Week in Missouri.
In a letter designating Jackson County StormReady, the National Weather Service cited the county’s “program of severe weather readiness and preparation that is a model for others to follow.” Citizens can receive text and/or email alerts about severe weather through the Jackson County’s emergency system by signing up at jacksongov.org/alerts.
Adolphson credited the county for “working in partnership” with local law enforcement agencies, firefighting departments, hospitals and schools to “make sure all are ready for the inevitable.” She stressed, “We get hit by severe weather every year. It’s never a matter of if, but when.”
The county having multiple systems in place to warn citizens about approaching severe weather was one crucial factor to Jackson County being named StormReady. Adolphson also noted the county’s extensive efforts to educate the public, with an emphasis on sponsoring storm spotter training. Bailey often conducts that training.
“We focus on situational awareness,” he said, “and how to identify severe weather as it is developing. Spotting is really safe if you’ve been trained and really dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.”
Bailey added the Weather Service was also impressed with the plans the county has in place to not only adequately warn citizens about threatening weather conditions, but to then respond after a storm strikes.
“Jackson County has a lot of redundancies built into its systems,” he said. “Emergency Preparedness has made the county as resilient as it possibly could be in the event of disastrous weather.”
The devastating tornado that killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011 “wasn’t that far from home,” County Executive Sanders said. (Six of the 25 deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history had been in Missouri.)
“We want people to have a plan in place to be ready,” Sanders said. “Only 17 other counties in Missouri have been hit by more tornadoes than Jackson County over the last 64 years.”
According to the National Weather Service, 31 tornadoes were reported in Jackson County between 1950 and 2014.
“The odds of being in the direct path of a tornado are slim, but the odds of surviving one if you are not ready, don’t know how best to seek shelter, can be pretty slim,” Adolphson said. “The Joplin tornado wasn’t all that long ago and not all that far away. A tornado like that could happen here. It could happen anywhere.”
Jackson County Emergency Preparedness Director Mike Curry agreed. While Bailey said it has been “awhile” since a tornado was last spotted in Jackson County – he couldn’t recall one in his eight years in the Kansas City/Pleasant Hill office – Curry pointed out, “You never know when you’re due for a tornado. Severe weather has no schedule and goes beyond tornadoes. Severe thunderstorms can produce high winds, hail, and lightning. Flash flooding is fairly common.
“The main thing is to be aware and then know what to do to keep yourself as safe as you possibly can in a dangerous situation.”
DISPELLING TORNADO MYTHS
There are a lot of myths surrounding tornadoes. The “Tonganoxie Split” is a local one.
“I’m not sure where that one comes from, but I’ve heard it,” said Julie Adolphson, the Meteorologist-In-Charge at the National Weather Service’s Kansas City/Pleasant Hill office. “Supposedly, storms will reach Tonganoxie in Leavenworth County [Kansas] and split in two, then go around Kansas City or be severely weakened. It’s nonsense.”
And the Missouri River won’t stop a tornado either. “That’s another one you hear,” Adolphson added, “that tornadoes can’t cross rivers.” That myth was one Adolphson had to work doubly hard to debunk when working in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where three rivers converge.
Another myth is that tornadoes never attack a major metropolitan area.
“They can happen anytime anywhere,” Adolphson said.
About 1,000 tornadoes are spawned each year in the United States, more than in other country. And that’s a fact. The Gulf of Mexico acts as an “engine,” Adolphson said, to disburse the warm air that clashes with the cold fronts that trigger the severe thunderstorms which can evolve into tornadoes.
“We want everyone, whether they live in downtown Kansas City or out in unincorporated Jackson County to have a plan,” said Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders. “Don’t wait for the storm sirens to go off and then try to figure out where to find shelter.
“It’s great the Weather Service has officially declared the county to be StormReady. We want every citizen to be ready.”