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NOAA image of tornado destruction in Kansas City, Mo., taken May 4, 2003.May 5, 2003 — The calm of a pleasant afternoon and evening was destroyed Sunday May 4 when cold dry air moving from the Rockies collided with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico resulting in giant, supercell storms and deadly tornadoes in up to eight states. Residents of eastern Kansas, northwest, southwest and northern Missouri, parts of Arkansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Mississippi were sent scrambling for shelter from tornadoes, high winds and large hail. (Click NOAA image for larger view of tornado destruction in Kansas City, Mo., taken May 4, 2003. Click here to see NOAA satellite image loop of tornado outbreak.)

NOAA National Weather Service personnel at Midwest offices braced themselves and their customers for severe weather two days before the tornado outbreak. “The atmosphere created a perfect set up for a significant spring severe weather outbreak,” Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist for the NOAA Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said. “As early as Friday, we saw the potential for a dangerous situation developing based on the computer models.”

NOAA image of tornado alley.State emergency management officials blamed the tornadoes for many deaths, with a large number occurring in southwest Missouri. Pierce City, Mo., in Lawrence County about 30 miles southeast of Joplin and about 35 miles southwest of Springfield, was the scene of more than ten fatalities, according to authorities. Many of those deaths occurred at a National Guard armory, where some residents had sought shelter. The building was reportedly leveled by a tornado that had torn through downtown. The tornado was on the ground for half an hour, touching down at 6:25 p.m. CDT. The tornado caused damage and injuries near Monett, Verona, Aurora and Marionville; leveled a fire station in Battlefield, just south of Springfield; and destroyed an electrical substation in Carl Junction, Mo.

The first tornado report of the day was made at about 1:40 p.m. CDT by an off-duty NOAA National Weather Service employee, who reported a weak tornado on the ground 2-3 miles north of Pauline in Adams County of south-central Nebraska. A little more than an hour later, law enforcement reported a tornado near Colon in Saunders County, Neb.

NOAA image of tornado outbreak taken by the NOAA GOES-12 environmental satellite on May 4, 2003 at 6:45 p.m. EDT.The outbreak turned deadly when a tornado touched down at about 3:55 p.m. just south of Basehor in Leavenworth County, Kan. That tornado stayed on the ground for one-and-a-half hours, plowing through Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, Platte and Clay counties in Missouri before lifting off the ground in Ray County, Mo., northeast of Kansas City. The tornado was blamed for one death in Kansas City, Kan., after it passed near the Kansas Speedway at I-70 and I-435, and passed just east of the Woodlands race track. The tornado forced the temporary closure of Kansas City International Airport, where officials evacuated the control tower and guided travelers and others to tunnels for about 30 minutes. Officials reported 21 injuries from the tornado. (Click NOAA image for larger view of tornado outbreak taken by the NOAA GOES-12 environmental satellite on May 4, 2003 at 6:45 p.m. EDT. Please credit “NOAA.”)

Lynn Maximuk, meteorologist in charge of the Kansas City NOAA National Weather Service forecast office in Pleasant Hill, Mo., said the tornado reached 500 yards across at its most intense stage. NOAA National Weather Service personnel were to conduct damage surveys Monday, according to Maximuk.

Mike Looney, chief of meteorological services at the NOAA National Weather Service Central Region Headquarters in Kansas City, said the Pleasant Hill forecast office, emergency management, the media and the public should be credited for the low number of fatalities and injuries from such a massive local outbreak.

“Sunday in the Kansas City metropolitan area provided an example of how lives are saved when everyone pays heed to a tornado warning and takes action,”Looney said. “Our forecasters communicated early with emergency management and the media to give them advance notice that severe weather was on the way. Local media, especially the TV weather forecast crews, did an excellent job of providing critical and timely information to the public. Residents paid attention and did what they needed to do to keep safe. To have such a large tornado on the ground for more than an hour in an urban area with so few injuries is a credit to everyone.”

A tornado touched down in Crawford County in southeast Kansas at about 4:40 p.m. CDT, cutting a path up to a half-mile wide through Ringo, Girard, Fanklin and Mulberry before moving into Missouri. The tornado was blamed for six deaths in Kansas. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius declared seven counties disaster areas.

Missouri officials also reported fatalities in Greene, Christian, Camden, Barton and Barry counties. Officials reported severe storm damage in 16 Missouri counties, including up to 400 homes damaged in Green County.

Tennessee emergency management officials reported at least 11 people were killed when a supercell moved through Madison County. At least one tornado struck downtown Jackson, causing extensive damage to the city’s fairgrounds, post office, law enforcement complex and a National Guard armory. Significant damage was also reported in and around the city.

Heavy damage was also reported in western Tennessee, where severe thunderstorms and at least one tornado touched down in Dyersburg in Dyer County. Officials there said an earlier report of a single fatality was incorrect. There were several injuries in Dyer County, but no deaths.

Tornado damage was also reported in Obion and Weakly counties in Tennessee.

Tornado damage was reported in Woodruff County of northeast Arkansas, about 70 miles northeast of Little Rock. Damage included the destruction of a fire station in McCrory and 10-15 houses between the towns of Patterson and McCrory. There was also a tornado in White County, where one injury occurred in El Paso, Ark. Tornadoes were also reported in extreme northeast Oklahoma and in northwest Mississippi.

For the day, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center recorded 84 reports of tornadoes, 89 for wind damage and 275 reports of large hail. For Sunday, NOAA National Weather Service forecast offices in the stricken areas issued 187 tornado warnings and 446 severe thunderstorm warnings.

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Relevant Web Sites
NOAA National Weather Service Central Region — Links to Photos, Graphics and Radar Images of Tornado Outbreak

NOAA Tornadoes Page

NOAA Storm Watch

NOAA National Weather Service

Media Contacts:
Patrick Slattery, NOAA Weather Service Central Region, (816) 891-8914 or Ron Trumbla, NOAA Weather Service Southern Region, (817) 978-1111, ext. 140