The Fujita Scale, the scale by which we rate the intensity of a tornado, was introduced in 1971 by Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita of the University of Chicago along with Allen Pearson of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (now the Storm Prediction Center). It was first implemented in 1973, and tornadoes from 1950 to 1972 were retroactively rated based on available damage photos. Fujita passed away in 1998, but the F-Scale has continued. In 2007, the scale was updated to the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale) – more accurately matching wind speed to severity of damage, and creating more strict damage indicators dealing with quality of construction or different types of vegetation.
Since 1950 there had been exactly 50 F5 tornadoes, exactly one per year on average thru 1999. However, as spring 2007 approached, there had not been an F5 tornado since the devastating May 3, 1999 F5 that struck the Oklahoma City suburbs of Bridge Creek and Moore, killing 36 people. The eight year drought was the longest streak without an F5 tornado since 1950, and with more strict guidelines to qualify as EF5 damage, some wondered if it was even possible for an EF5 tornado and if the old F5 rating more translated to an EF4 on the new scale.
2007 had already seen some deadly tornadoes. On February 2nd four separate tornadoes resulted in 21 fatalities in Central Florida, though none were rated higher than EF3. A large multi-day tornado outbreak from February 28 to March 2 resulted in 20 more fatalities – most notably nine in Enterprise, Alabama where a high school was struck, killing eight students when a wall collapsed on them. On April 24th an EF3 tornado on the Mexico/US border resulted in seven fatalities in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Greensburg is a small town in south-central Kansas with a population of 1,574 according to the 2000 census. Friday, May 4th brought unseasonably warm temperatures, with highs in the mid 80s, and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. The moist air, potent wind shear and approaching low pressure from the west showed promise for severe weather and the National Weather Service issued a moderate risk for severe weather with a 15% probability for a tornado in western Kansas (within 25 miles of a single point) – certainly not an event to take lightly. That being said, it was the Saturday forecast that was looking more ominous for a tornado outbreak.
Storms were slow to build, but by early evening the first supercell thunderstorms were coming to life in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, producing a few short-lived tornadoes in open country. As one storm approached Kansas, it had become more organized. After a couple more brief tornadoes in Clark and Comanche Counties, the tornado that would strike Greensburg touched down at approximately 9pm in northwestern Comanche County and quickly gained strength as it moved northeast into Kiowa County as the sun set – making it difficult to see the tornado except when illuminated by lightning flashes.
via Stormtrack message board – 8:51pm, Dick McGowan (storm chaser), “We have seen two touchdowns west of Protection, KS.”
via Stormtrack message board – 9:22pm, George Tincher, “As of 9:04pm, spotters were reporting a large and dangerous tornado over extreme NW Comanche County, KS….. 9 miles NW of Coldwater. It was moving NE @ 25 mph. That storm on radar is displaying some absolutely sick rotation. So I am not at all surprised by this report of a large tornado in progress.”
via Stormtrack message board – 9:27pm, Mike Umscheid (NWS Dodge City), “150kts G2G shear So Kiowa CO… violent tornado…. be damn careful out there please…..”
via Stormtrack message board – 9:34pm, Brian Stertz, “Looks like this tornado is approaching the town of Greensburg (Kiowa Co. KS)… hopefully it will miss them. SRV looks scary and the skits are taking the mean couplet towards town.”
via Stormtrack message board – 9:37pm, Billy Griffin, “Absolutely INSANE couplet on the Kiowa Co. KS storm! Please be safe everyone! I pray it stays over open country!”
By 9:38pm storm chasers reported the tornado had grown to over 1/2 mile wide and that several satellite tornadoes had been observed. At 9:41pm the National Weather Service office in Dodge City issued a Tornado Emergency for the town of Greensburg, which could not see the tornado coming in the dark and because it had become largely wrapped in rain. Winds had picked up considerably and quarter size hail was falling in the town.
via Stormtrack message board – 9:40pm, George Tincher, “I have been using GR Level 3 now for over two years and this storm has exhibited the strongest rotation I have ever seen on it while using those products. As of right now, the MAXDV on this TVS is 190 knots!”
via Stormtrack message board – 9:46pm, Brian Stertz, “Tornado emergency for Greensburg… say a prayer for that town. It does not look good.”
18 year old Megan Gardiner kept a minute-by-minute timeline of her observations as the tornado approached town. By 9:48 hail had increased to golfball size. At 9:49 the wind was “ferocious” and the power went out – then there was a drop in pressure with intense ear pain for 15 seconds – wind & hail are described as “horrible”. At 9:50:45 she reports it to be “deathly quiet and “freaky” – time had run out for the town of Greensburg.
At 9:51 Gardiner reports windows exploded, followed by the house tearing apart (she and her family were in their basement, a home where damage would later be rated as EF5). At 9:53 the tornado is still going, described as a “horrible roar”, and lots of screaming is heard. At 9:54 the tornado continues, and she describes the wind as “overpowering”. Finally at 9:55 it comes to an end, and rain falls from the sky. The slow-moving, large tornado took roughly four minutes to pass through town (as compared to the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado which was no more than one minute, or the fast-moving 2011 Tuscaloosa, Alabama tornado which was likely over one spot no more than 15 seconds).
Greensburg had taken a direct hit. The town is only about 1.5 miles wide, a near perfect match for the size of the tornado. As residents staggered out of their shelter, the tornado, finally occluding, nearly circled and struck the town again before dissipating at 10:05pm. Another large tornado would touch down to the east of Greensburg at 10:03 and grow to be even wider, and perhaps stronger than the Greensburg tornado – fortunately staying over mostly open country as it stayed on the ground for over an hour charging northeast near Trousdale. Yet another large tornado would touch down at 10:39pm near Hopewell, traveling parallel to the Trousdale tornado for a time and killing a police officer in his car.
via Stormtrack message board – 9:57pm, Mike Parker, “I am posting a request from Darin Brunin. I just hung up the phone with him. He is in Greensburg and reporting huge damage. His words were that the damage path could be up to 2 miles wide. He and Dick McGowan are in the process of rescuing people from their homes. They have said that there are not enough emergency personnel to help out all the victims. Their request is that if anyone is near the town to please stop and help the people. They are reporting dazed and confused people just roaming around. I could hear it in his voice that this is a terrible situation in Greensburg.”
via Stormtrack message board – 10:01pm, Mike Umscheid, “Ford County is in communication with Kiowa… there is major damage in Greensburg. There are injuries and whatnot… they needed “all the help they could get” no communications other than radio communication.”
In the hours after the tornado hit, Greensburg was judged unsafe and was fully evacuated. Injured were transferred to hotels in Dodge City and Wichita. The Kansas National Guard was called in to assist with security measures. The Red Cross and FEMA assisted in recovery efforts and shelters were established in nearby towns.
Kiowa County Memorial Hospital sustained heavy damage, and as many as 30 people may have been initially trapped inside. A motel on the west edge of the city, two schools (including the high school pictured above), a tractor supply company and the Greensburg City Hall were destroyed. Downtown was flattened, trees were debarked and vehicles were thrown hundreds of feet. The city’s water tower was toppled and smashed. The visitor’s center at the Big Well (world’s largest hand-dug well) was completely destroyed. Train cars were overturned. The courthouse and the grain elevator were spared the worst of the tornado’s effects. The Greensburg meteorite, feared to have been blown away, was found and recovered a few days later.
Eleven people were killed and sixty three injured – a remarkably low number for a tornado of this ferocity occuring in darkness. Without a doubt the combination of excellent warnings, a slow-moving tornado and a population that heeded the warnings is the reason. This one supercell produced 22 tornadoes over the course of eight hours – four of which were long track, wide and particularly intense. The Greensburg tornado would be confirmed an EF5 a few days later – the first on the new Enhanced Fujita Scale – and had an EF3 damage track double the width of the May 3, 1999 Oklahoma City F5 tornado.
Meanwhile, Saturday May 5th was rated a high risk of severe weather, with tornado probibilities of 30% in nearly the exact same areas. Severe storms and more tornado warnings would threaten the search and rescue crews in Greensburg. Over 80 tornadoes would touch down on May 5th, fortunately none were rated higher than EF3 and only one person was killed. Greensburg would have another close call on May 23, 2008, but that tornado would lift before striking the town.
In July of 2013 I was able to visit Greensburg on a family trip, spending a night in the new Best Western hotel. The evidence of the tornado was still plainly evident seven years later. Numerous trees showed the effects of the tornado, and while much of the city had been rebuilt, numerous empty lots and empty slabs could be found. The town’s future remains very much in doubt, as the population was 777 as of the 2010 census, a drop of 50% from before the tornado.
*** Sources include photos by Mike Theiss, Melanie Metz and Dan Robinson (among others I am not certain of but will happily give credit to). Mike Umscheid and Leslie Lemon’s “The Greensburg, KS tornadic storm: a storm of extremes” was also immensely helpful. Other sources I referenced include Stormtrack.org and Wikipedia. Brandon Mowry, Dan Robinson and the combiation of Dick McGowan, Darin Brunin and Derek Shaffer have YouTube videos that are excellent (among many others).