Wednesday’s storms posed danger
Sirens sounded three times in Tonganoxie last Wednesday when severe weather developed in Jefferson County and moved through the area.
Some local residents might have thought the repeated alerts were false alarms.
But Chuck Magaha, director of the Leavenworth County Office of Emergency Preparedness, said that wasn't the case.
"It's my call," Magaha said. "I could have easily not blown it the first two times and blown it the last time."
But Magaha said he had good reason to sound the alarm three times.
First, the storm that moved methodically through the area was known as a mesocyclone. According to the National Weather Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site, a mesocyclone is a storm cell usually 2 to 6 miles in diameter. It covers a much larger area than the tornado that develops within it.
Magaha noted that most storms are in and out of the area in fewer than 30 minutes. Last week's storm came into the area in the late afternoon and stuck around well into the evening.
And then it made its way into Missouri.
"This is the same storm system that created 80 mile per hour winds in Belton," Magaha said.
Jarbalo also recorded hail measuring 1.75 inches in diameter.
With a mesocyclone, high precipitation also is likely, as are multiple tornadoes.
"It has a strong updraft that causes many funnel clouds to kick out on the sides," Magaha said.
In general, sirens are sounded when the National Weather Service confirms a tornado in the area, or when area storm spotters detect a wall cloud that can produce a tornado.
If Magaha decides to sound Tonganoxie's sirens from his Leavenworth office, sirens also sound in the Jarbalo, Linwood, Basehor and Reno areas because the sirens are hooked into the same network.
An even bigger danger
Tornadoes usually cause Kansas residents the most alarm when severe weather approaches, but Magaha warned that flash flooding can be an even larger threat.
Last Wednesday's storm that produced large amounts of precipitation, coupled with earlier heavy rainfall, made Leavenworth County a prime site for flash flooding.
Magaha said the Leavenworth County Water Rescue Team and area fire departments rescued one person in Easton and another in Lansing who had tried to drive through high waters.
Magaha urged drivers to be cautious during or after heavy rains.
"If you can't see the ground, turn around," he said.
Magaha's eyes and ears
Last Wednesday night, a total of 38 volunteer storm-spotters dispersed throughout the county.
A few of those volunteers came from the Tonganoxie Fire Department.
When the emergency preparedness office's weather spotters head out, Tonganoxie Fire Capt. Jim McCutchen said, the Tonganoxie Fire Department does, as well.
Storm spotters are positioned at the top of Hubbel Hill just west of Tonganoxie on Kansas Highway 16 and near Paradise Trailer Park south of Tonganoxie on U.S. Highway 24-40.
Remaining firefighters take department vehicles to various areas of the city so that if a storm damages the firehouse, vehicles still would be available to respond to emergencies. Those firefighters also keep an eye on the weather. And if firefighters detect an issue of concern in the sky, they contact Magaha.
When severe weather approaches, firefighters also head to West Haven Baptist Church and Tonganoxie Junior High School to ensure they're unlocked because both are community shelters where residents can take cover.
As for the storm spotting, McCutchen said a storm spotter class is offered each year in Leavenworth. McCutchen has been a storm spotter the last three years and a firefighter for the last 14.
Taking the class has made McCutchen pay more attention to the sky.
"Anytime there's bad weather, you automatically look toward the sky," McCutchen said. If you're on vacation or whatever, you look up and see what the clouds are doing."
Last Wednesday's storm cell was one of the largest McCutchen has seen since working at the fire department. And, he said it likely posed the biggest threat to Tonganoxie since the tornado of May 2000.
"I bet we probably spotted five to six funnels that formed," McCutchen said. "They were cloud height, formed out of the clouds. They had small rotations in them and then they just dispersed.
"It's the most funnels I'd ever seen formed. The storm had a lot of rotation."
McCutchen and fellow storm spotters go through the same routine every time threatening weather enters the area -- they take to the roads to help keep Magaha informed.
"We sit through hail, torrential rain, high winds," McCutchen said. "You name it we're in it."