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Winter 2014

A man whose job can be Monster Storms

by Charlene Scott Myers

He was only a little boy when Tim Burke, lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Dodge City for 17 years, had his first experience with a tornado.

"When I was a kid about seven years old, living in Gary, Indiana, I fell asleep on the couch in our trailer living room," he recalled.

"My dad picked me up and carried me to my bed. When he returned to the living room, a tornado had shattered the window, spilling glass fragments all over the couch where I had been sleeping. I remember it was weird going around seeing the damage. There were trees in the middle of some of the trailers."

Burke knows a lot more about dangerous tornadoes now.

"The worst U.S. tornado in terms of the number of people who died was a tri-state storm that hit in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18 1925, killing 695 people," Burke revealed.

"With no warning issued, Udall, Kansas suffered 80 deaths in the middle of the night from a tornado on May 25, 1955," Burke reported. "We have had fairly good statistics since 1950, and have had 237 tornado fatalities in the United States since that time. Kansas had no deaths from tornadoes in 2013."

Burke sits at four computers bright with colorful charts and maps that he peruses to keep track of changes in the weather not only in Kansas, but across the United States and nearby countries. One is a map of Tornado Alley, which includes the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The map shows the areas from which cold and warm dry air form a deadly cocktail of a tornado when mixed with warm moist air.

"My job is to forecast the weather in 27 Kansas counties from Elkhart to Medicine Lodge to Hays and Syracuse," he explained.

"We do the forecasting, and TV and radio do a great job of warning people so they can get to shelter. We issued 168 warnings during May 4th and 5th, 2007 in Kiowa County for the tornado that destroyed Greensburg and other tornadoes which hit Trousdale that day and the day after.

"A number of guys called and asked, 'Hey, when is this going to stop?'"

Burke is well qualified for his job. He graduated from North Carolina State University in 1979, receiving a B.S. degree in forestry.

"The Air Force sent me to St. Louis University, where I earned a B.S. degree in meteorology in 1980," he said. "Since 1980, I spent six and a half years as an Air Force weather officer, and then joined the National Weather Service in 1987 in Wichita."

Burke also has been assigned to National Weather Services offices in Des Moines, Iowa, Norman, Oklahoma, and Boulder, Colorado (the latter two are hubs for weather research).

He talked more about the terrible EF5 (Enhanced Fujita Scale) tornado nearly two miles wide with more than 200 mph winds that terrorized Greensburg residents. The tornado flattened the town and killed 14 people in the area, but the number of fatalities, though tragic, could not compare to the 695 people who perished in the tri-state 1925 storm.

Early warning because of Doppler radar made all the difference in the world, Burke noted.

"The advent of the Doppler radar system in 1988 changed the warning lead times for tornadoes from 13 minutes in 2004 to 18 minutes in 2012," he said. "Those five minutes can make a big difference to people seeking shelter and saving lives. For the first time, Doppler radar gave us a look at the winds inside a storm."

A TV weather forecaster in Wichita, using weather data from around the state, issued an early and insistent warning to residents of Greensburg and nearby towns, and was credited with saving countless lives that night. A total of 960 homes were destroyed in Greensburg, but the fatality list was low for the town of 1,500 people. The Greensburg tornado was only one of an outbreak of 25 funnels that night in western Kansas.

"Greensburg was as bad a tornado as you ever want to see," said Burke, who visited the shattered town, the first in the United States to receive an EF5 tornado rating for winds above 200 mph.

Burke was acquainted with the nation's ardent storm chaser 55-year-old researcher Tim Samaras, who with his team (son Paul, 24, and 45-year-old meteorologist Carl Young), were among the eight fatalities of the tornado that ravaged El Reno, Oklahoma at 6:23 p.m. on May 31, 2013.

"I always err on the side of caution," Samaras previously had said, but that day he literally threw caution to the winds. He was following the fat black wedge too closely.

Another storm chaser only three blocks behind Samara was videotaping the storm and Samara's car when it disappeared from his view. His footage "appears to show a small vehicle falling out of the sky," the November, 2013 issue of National Geographic reported. Samaras' small white Chevrolet Cobalt with his body still in the passenger seat was found crushed in a field, minus its engine and three wheels. The bodies of his son and Young (sucked out of the car either on the ground or in the air) were retrieved from nearby creeks.

The tornado plucked seven cattle from the Oklahoma City West Livestock Market and whisked them a half mile south of I-40, where the twister set them down gently and unharmed into a pasture. "What a ride!" Burke exclaimed. The El Reno tornado was declared the widest ever recorded, 2.6 miles.

"You could see on the satellite how it scraped the earth," Burke said. The main funnel had EF4 winds of 185 mph on the grounds and EF5 (above 200 mph) winds in the air. Classified as "a super rare" type by the Norman Weather Station, it was on the ground for 40 minutes and covered a 16.2 mile area.

Samaras made the mistake of doing what he cautioned other storm chasers never to do: getting too close to a tornado and remaining in a car in the midst of one. Vehicles are extremely dangerous in high winds, and overpasses can be deadly. Several cars (including ours) took shelter beneath an overpass during a twister near Wichita, until a Highway Patrolman warned we were in the worst place to be at that moment. A woman drowned when she drove her car off a freeway and under an overpass flooded with 14 feet of water during storm floods that killed 32 people in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Burke produced a map of Tornado Alley, which stretches from Texas into Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. The blood-red area on the map doesn't show every location where deadly twisters have struck, only those states where the most whirling storms occur.

A multiple-vortex tornado left 158 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded in Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011. Moore, Oklahoma has suffered two disastrous twisters; the first with unbelievable winds of 301 mph, the highest ever recorded globally for a tornado. Miraculously, the 1999 Bridge Creek-Moore EF5 tornado on May 3, 1999 took the lives of only 41 people, although it destroyed 8,132 homes, 1,041 apartments and 260 businesses. Another EF5 tornado hit Moore May 20, 2013 with 210 mph winds that killed 25 people.

"I think I would have moved out of Moore after that last one," Burke said. "A total of 3,900 tornadoes have been recorded in U.S. history, the first by a Lt. John P. Finley in 1897. He also gave the first known forecast warning. In 1952, Capt. Robert C. Miller (later a colonel) and Major Ernest Fawbush issued the first tornado watch at Tinker Air Force Base (in the southeast Oklahoma City area). Finley and Miller both wrote books that influenced U.S. weather forecasting."

Burke is familiar with other severe weather such as one of the world's strongest storms, Typhoon Haivan, which roared into the Philippines last November, killing thousands. (Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are names used in different parts of the world for the same kind of storm.)

A hurricane that smashed Galveston, Texas in 1900 took the lives of 7,000 to 12,000 of the city's population of 37,000. The second-deadliest storm to strike the United States, the September 1928 Okeechobee hurricane in Florida and the Caribbean caused more than 2,500 deaths, and the deadliest storm of recent times, Hurricane Katrina, claimed the lives of some 1,800 people.

"A hurricane is different from a tornado because it covers a much wider area," Burke said. "Large tornados usually are a mile and a quarter across; most are 30 yards across. Speeds of 318 mph have been measured within tornadoes, but hurricanes cover hundreds of miles and have huge swells that cause flooding."

Burke led the way out of his weather station into a field where two co-workers were preparing a Rawinsonde, a weather balloon package with an attached radar reflector that permits determination of wind direction and speed at various altitudes during the balloon's ascent. The balloon was to be launched under an evening moon. Darkness was fast approaching, and soon the balloon soared skyward. Another balloon is sent into the upper atmosphere every morning.

And speaking of weather, just what kind of weather does a meteorologist like Tim Burke prefer? "I don't like the extremes, too hot or too cold," he answered. "Parts of South Carolina have the best weather on the inland side where hurricanes don't reach that far."


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