On May 16th, 2023 a very significant severe weather event took place over the Great Plains, with two extremely violent tornadoes over the Oklahoma - Kansas border area. Five towns got struck and completely wiped out.
On May 15th, a Mesoscale Convective Complex passed over northern Kansas and southern Nebraska, causing widespread and extensive wind damage, especially in the Topeka and Kansas City areas. The system left an outflow boundary, which was oriented form the east-northeast to the west-southwest. Meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center recognized the similarity of this setup with the 1997 Jarrell, Texas one and issued a Moderate Risk for tornadoes as the boundary stalled over the Oklahoma - Kansas border. As the hours progressed, the air became very unstable, with about 4000 J/Kg in CAPE and with about 350 m2/s2 in 0-1 km SRH, the environment was prime for a potentially violent tornado outbreak.
Surprisingly, only one supercell managed to develop due to the strong CAP. The storm put down two violent tornadoes and a satellite over its 3 hours duration. The supercell followed a NE-SW path, riding along the boundary, at an extremely slow pace, about 20 mph. Both tornadoes were rated EF5 and the satellite EF0. Five towns were struck, one in Kansas and four in Oklahoma. The two tornadoes caused massive damage, wiping out numerous homes, farms, fields and roads, killing 99 people and injuring 87. Storm chasers and meteorologists, due to the similarities with the 1997 Texas event, called the tornadoes "Jarrell Relatives".
Bluff City - Manchester - Byron Tornado
The first tornado touched down northeast of the town of Bluff City, in Harper County, Kansas. From there, the twister started moving southwestward, stricking a farmstead, causing high end EF2 damage. As the tornado crossed the river just north of town, it gained strength and Bluff City took a direct hit. While the damage to trees along the river was rated EF4, the town itself suffered EF5 damage. The force of the tornado plus its slow movement (about 10-15 mph) left the town unrecognizable. Every single structure in town suffered at least EF3 damage, with the center of the community devastated at EF5 strength. The post office in the eastern part of town was leveled and the entire Central Avenue was scoured from the soil, leaving only a muddy line. The entire area between Kalamazoo Avenue and Englewood Avenue was swept clean with nothing left, not even debris or foundation of homes. All trees in town were completely debarked and cars were mangled beyond recognition.
As the tornado continued moving towards the southwest, it completely scoured entire fields, leaving only a distinct path of mud. Numerous farm animals were killed and three tractors were picked up and left unrecognizable several miles away. In some points, the tornado managed to dig ditches in the ground. Power poles went missing after being struck by the twister and a windmill was picked up, mangled and thrown about 700 yards away. With that, the tornado crossed the Kansas-Oklahoma border directly into the town of Manchester, in Grant County. There, the damage was identical to the damage back in Bluff City, with the only difference that the EF5 damage swath was wider. Main Street was cancelled, with all of the main buildings completely swept clean and the asphalt stripped from the ground. Weak structures such as mobile homes and outbuildings were picked up and thrown outside of town. Grain elevators went airborn and found about three miles to the southwest and some pieces up to 20 miles away.
The tornado then continued southwestward, striking numerous farmsteads, swepting them clean and killing hundreds of animals. Trees were debarked and thrown away, along with entire crops and soil, leaving only mud. Then, the twister crossed into Alfalfa County, growing up to a mile and an half wide, engulfing the entire small town of Byron. The city was entirely leveled, with nothing left, not even the foundations of homes, tree roots or roads. Finally the tornado became stationary southwest of town and dissipated as it approached the river, while the precipitations and RFD winds wrapped around the mesocyclone.
The tornado killed 49 people and injured 52 more. Each town lost at least 10 people (in Bluff City 16 people were killed, in Manchester 11 and in Byron 21) and another person was killed as he tried to outrun the tornado in his car. When the rescuers and storm chasers reached the towns after the hit by the tornado, especially Byron, they were unsure if there was even a town there to begin with, since all the structures were swept clean. As some people got out of their underground shelters and basements, everybody realised that there were indeed towns. A lot of people were sucked out of their basements and several families that seeked shelter in enterior rooms were killed due to the intensity of the tornado. Cars were smashed against buildings and others wrapped around still standing trees and poles. The entire city of Waldron heard a deep and furious roar as the tornado passed to the south; numerous residents reported rain and baseball size hail full of dirt falling from the sky along with grass, leaves, wood and insolation. Overall, the tornado travelled for about 37 miles in about an hour and an half and widened up to two miles after striking Manchester.
Amorita - Burlington Tornado
As the first tornado dissipated and the mesocyclone weakened, a new area of circulation developed to the north. A new tornado formed about four miles northeast of the town of Amorita. While residents were busy picking up debris that fell down from the sky as the first twister passed to the south, they watched in horror the new one form just outside town and move directly towards it. Amorita got struck directly and suffered EF4 damage, especially along Main Street. All of the structures were damaged by at least EF2 force winds. Miraculously, all the residents managed to get to shelter as the tornado formed and approached from the northeast and in town three people suffered minor injuries.
The tornado weakened, causing EF2 damage to the southwest, while striking farmland and trees but it immensly intensified as it crossed the river, starting to cause EF4 to EF5 damage to farmsteads and fields. Meanwhile, television meteorologists started asking people in the town of Burlington to evacuate south and west. As the tornado approached town, it widened up to a mile wide and engulfed the city. The few people remaining in town either watched in shock their town getting violently swept clean or hide in their basements. The ones living south of Maple Street (where homes suffered EF2 to EF3 damage) managed to watch the EF5 part of the tornado passing to their north and west, hitting Riverside Church of Christ, which was picked up entirely by the tornado and thrown around before being smashed against the grain elevators on the northwest side of town. The entire area between Poplar Street and western Maple Street was wiped clean at EF5 strength, much like the towns hit by the other tornado. Burlington High School was devastated, with only the enterior walls of the ground floor remaining. Trees were completely debarked and cars were found up to five miles to the southwest, completely unrecognizable.
The tornado continued moving southwestawrd, weaking to an EF4. Trees were almost completely debarked, entire fields were scoured and a few farmsteads were struck. While the people of Burlington were racing westward along Jefferson Road, a sudden satellite tornado developed and passed over the road as people mixed with several storm chasers were moving and a 18-wheeler was tipped over, blocking both lanes of the road. As the satellite dissipated, the main tornado approached from the northeast and crossed the road after widening to about two miles. None of the people managed to seek shelter in ditches because of the speed of the tornado and decided to ride it out in their cars, except for the storm chasers. As the twister passed over them, chasers managed to film cars being picked up from the road and thrown around. Seven of the chasers sheltering in ditches were injured by the tornado but everybody survived. None of the cars remained on the road and almost all of them were found in nearby fields. Very few people survived. The tornado finally dissipated about 9 miles south of Capron in Woods County, sparing the small community of Ashley, after 24 miles and about an hour from touchdown.
The tornado killed 50 people, 43 of them being in the cars along Jefferson Road. The other seven were killed either in Burlington or in farmsteads. Of the 68 people, including storm chasers, on that road at the time of impact, 25 were injured and 7 more injuries occurred as the tornado passed over Burlington.
Controversies about Evacuations
The event brought back up some controversies already born after the infamous El Reno Tornado of 2013. Those controversies were about the question: should people evacuate in front of an incoming tornado? The answer given by numerous tornado experts was "no" in both the El Reno event and this one for the reason that cars can be picked up and tossed even in an EF2 tornado, well below both the El Reno and Amorita-Burlington tornadoes in terms of intensity. But the differences between these two events were several: for instance, the El Reno tornado was threating a metropolitan area, so more people were evacuating after the advice given by televison meteorologists. But the main difference was that in the May 2013 event, the tornado lifted before entering populated areas and luckily no other strong to violent tornadoes dropped from the sky in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area; in this case, less people were evacuated from Burlington but the tornado stayed on the ground. Plus, as many storm chasers were looking out for, a satellite tornado developed and put everybody who was fleeing on Jefferson Road in extreme danger. The tornado then hit the road as almost 90 people between storm chasers and residents were trapped there. Some of the survivers from Jefferson Road said that they prefered riding the twister in their car because "nobody wanted to get out in the mix of dust, debris and wind like those crazy chasers". So the tornado ended up picking up cars with entire families inside them.
The advice of evacuating was put in serious discussion after the complete surveys from the National Weather Service came out. "Most residential buildings, which are located mostly on the north side of town, on the south side of town and on the southwest corner, suffered EF2 to EF3 damage and only nine others suffered EF4 to EF5 damage, with only two completely swept clean at EF5 strength. So people would have had a much higher chance of survival inside their homes instead of their cars" were the words of tornado expert and wind engineer Timothy P. Marshall after surveying the devastated town.
In the weeks and months after the tornadoes, psychologists started to investigate what was going through the mind of television people and residents who fleed and survived and most of the risults were along these lines: "What probably lead meteorologists to make evacuate people was the fact that Amorita, Byron, Manchester and Bluff City back in Kansas were pretty much gone. It was just an human reaction to extreme danger after seeing what it already caused and the residents who were the next in the path of the tornado, in order to not suffer the same fate, decided to follow the advice even though they knew that it was wrong to do so".