After rare tornado lull, Tornado Alley mobilizing ahead of severe storms

Meteorologists are expecting localized storms to start forming Saturday evening between moist and dry air. Tornado Alley could see twisters across the high plains.

Gene Blevins/REUTERS
A photographer looks at thunderstorm supercells in Oklahoma April 23. The storms were a precursor of what's forecast for this weekend that could be the most significant multi-day tornado outbreak in the US since 2011.

The slow tornado season may be over, as some 32 million people across Tornado Alley and beyond are facing a spell of storms that could spawn killer twisters across the high plains Saturday into Sunday.

So far, this has been one of the quietest tornado years on record, with no tornado fatalities at all at this point in the year for the first time since 2002 and 1950. That pattern has been tied to lower-than-average temperatures through much of the country, including most of the Midwest.

Even though meteorologists on Saturday began to walk back some of their more dire predictions, this weekend’s storm resumes the pattern that earned Tornado Alley its name: Rolling, high-energy moisture from the Gulf clashing with colder, drier air of the plateau. Add some heavy-duty wind shearing, and the stage is set for the greenish sky hues that often precede the so-called supercell storms that can throw off tornadoes.

The storms come as several states are recognizing National Weather Service’s Severe Weather Awareness Week, which includes municipalities across the country testing their tornado sirens and disaster drills. Accuweather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski predicted the system “may end up being one of the top severe weather events for the season.”

Meteorologists are expecting localized storms to start forming Saturday evening along a “dry line” between moist and dry air, with Abilene, Tex., Clinton, Okla., and Dodge City, Kan. in the current path. Because of the system’s timing, much of the tornadic activity could take place in the overnight hours.

Cities like Omaha, Neb., Wichita, Kan., Oklahoma City, and Dallas could face severe weather, and Kansas City, St. Louis, Little Rock, Memphis and Tulsa are also bracing for possible hail and potential twisters.

Despite improved warning systems that give most people 13 minutes of warning if a tornado is bearing down (compared to 5 minutes in the 1980s), US twisters continue to be one of the most dangerous weather threats in the world.

“In 2013, there were 55 tornado-related fatalities in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Illinois,” notes the Monitor’s Noelle Swan. “In 2011, 553 people were killed by tornadoes in the deadliest tornado season since 1936.”

Such statistics are on the minds of major events organizers like the crew responsible for the annual Memorial Marathon, in Oklahoma City, scheduled to start at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday. It’s not clear whether the storms will have moved off by the early morning start time, but racers are being informed about nearby tornado shelters in case they have to move in a hurry.

Organizers of the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts and the Norman Music Festival are also keeping an eye on the weather.

In Oklahoma City, residents have yet to fully recover from a multiple tornado event around the suburban town of Moore, Oklahoma, last spring, where 24 people perished and entire neighborhoods were knocked to the ground during one particular EF-5 strength twister.

That powerful tornado also took the lives of seven children at an elementary school. In response, many Tornado Alley school districts have added steel tornado shelters to their buildings. Local newspapers reported that some districts were rushing to finish those shelters last week as the heavy spring storms began to gather.

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