Wichita State News

Podcast: 'Kansas -- In the Heart of Tornado Alley'

Friday, July 27, 2012

This WSU Newsline Podcast is available at http://www.wichita.edu/newslinepodcast. See the transcript below:

You’re listening to the podcast edition of the Wichita State University audio newsline. Learn more about WSU on the Web at wichita.edu.

In 1915, Snowden D. Flora of the U.S. Weather Bureau wrote, “Kansas has been so commonly considered the tornado state of the country that the term ‘Kansas cyclone’ has almost become a part of the English language.”

Flora’s words still seem to ring true. Whether called twister, tornado, vortex or cyclone, these catastrophic events have shaped lives in the Sunflower State for generations. That, in part, was the inspiration for two Wichita State University faculty and three graduate students to co-author the photo-based, local history book “Kansas – In the Heart of Tornado Alley.”

Jay Price
Jay Price
Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State and one of the co-authors, talks about the inspiration for the book.

Price: “The inspiration for the book came about in the wake of the 2007 Greensburg tornado. And in the conversation with Arcadia Publishing, the decision was to look at Kansas as a whole, which was a good idea because if ever there was a state associated with tornadoes, it is that of Kansas.”

Producing a book on tornadoes presented some challenges, as Price explains.

Price: “The challenge was doing a photo history related toward tornadoes. Those are the types of photos that are available. Prior to really more recent innovations of camera technology and availability, the photos one had were of the destruction after an event. And after a while, photos of destruction and destruction and destruction can get a little repetitious.”

Price has observed some similarities in how people view tornadoes and the sinking of the Titanic.

Price: “When we look at the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a lot of interest in the technical aspects of it — how did it break up, and how did it land on the seabed and so forth? And sometimes we get so focused on the technology side, that we forget the human story. And in some ways, the study of tornadoes has become that as well. We become so interested in the dynamics of the storm formation and even the destruction they cause, that we forget the lives that are disrupted because of it.”

Price also says tornadoes are part of the Kansas DNA.

Price: “Even if someone has never seen a funnel cloud, there’s something about tornadoes that’s in the state DNA.

“Unlike hurricanes, who are named and are talked about almost as if they’re people that make conscious decisions, we tend to think about tornadoes more akin to wild animals in the sense that we watch them from a distance, hopefully a safe distance, and keep out of their way.

“The freakiness of tornadoes and tornadic destruction I think contributes to some of the interest in the phenomena. A tornado can devastate a house, but can leave a goldfish in a fishbowl untouched.”

We may know a lot more about tornadoes now than we did 50 years ago, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know, according to Price.

Price: “Tornadoes are inherently unpredictable, and we’ve been lulled into a sense of security that we can now understand the phenomenon thanks to the radar and all the technology out there. But there’s still an awful lot that we don’t know, and that’s why going out to chase tornadoes is exceptionally dangerous and is not something that the ordinary person should be doing.”

The boundaries of Tornado Alley are debatable, but there is widespread agreement that the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and much of Texas form the core of the alley. Between 2000 and 2010, these four states experienced 3,908 tornadoes, with 40 percent occurring in Texas and 31 percent in Kansas.

Price says the greatest challenge for those who are responsible for alerting the public in times of severe weather is to encourage average citizens to adequately prepare for possible tornadoes and respond in ways that help rather than hinder relief and rescue efforts.

Thanks for listening. Until next time, this is Joe Kleinsasser for Wichita State University.

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