Warnings in the early hours on Wednesday about a Kansas City tornado have prompted community conversations about the timing and efficacy of severe weather alert systems especially at night. 

The National Weather Service constantly monitors weather conditions in the Kansas City area  and sends out severe weather alerts when necessary. Smartphones that allow emergency alerts received a tornado warning a little after 1:20 a.m. Wednesday, with the warning lasting until 1:45 a.m. in Jackson County.

Preliminary results from the National Weather Service show that an EF-1 tornado occurred in Johnson and Jackson counties, with 100 mph winds and a 14 mile-long track. 

In Johnson County, all tornado sirens were activated. Claire Canaan, assistant director of community preparedness, said Wednesday’s storm formed suddenly, leading the county to activate all sirens, rather than distinguish certain areas from one another. 

“If the (National Weather Service’s) radars indicate some chance of tornadic weather or severe weather, that’s going to put us here on a different alert level,” Canaan said. “But then we have situations like last night, where in about five minutes the storm is identified, notifications are sent out and within a couple more minutes the storm has already passed over.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Julie Adolphson said this type of storm was typical, but is more common later in the severe weather season, which starts in March and stretches into August. 

“These nocturnal storm systems, like what we had last night, are a little more common a bit later in the severe weather season,” Adolphson said. “We had a little bit of a delay since it was pretty cool early in the season. We didn’t have a lot of severe weather until recently.”

Kansas City tornado prompts weather alert conversations

On social media, some expressed concerns about not hearing tornado sirens during the storm, depending on where they were. 

Tornado sirens are intended to alert those who are outside and need to seek immediate shelter, while those inside should rely more on other alert systems. 

“We see a lot of people after testing, they’ll have concerns about not being able to hear them in their home, and that’s going to be the case for some places,” Canaan said. “Some people will hear the sirens in their home, just based on their proximity to those outside warning sirens.”

To ensure safety during severe weather, officials say it’s important to have more than one method of staying informed. Susan McMahan, deputy director at Wyandotte County Emergency Management, said the county highly recommends that all residents have multiple ways of getting immediate information on weather developments. 

Tornado safety tips

  • Go to a basement, storm cellar, or smallest interior room with no windows.
  • Make sure your head and neck are protected.
  • Bring a weather radio or cellphone to your safe location.
  • If you’re driving during a tornado warning, find a low and flat location.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

McMahan recommends apps from local TV news stations that provide up to date information.

Other recommendations include buying a NOAA weather radio.

“They’re affordable, you can get them at your grocery store, you can get them at Walmart,” Canaan said. “Those can cover a broader area for you and alert you within your home about severe weather.”

Canaan also encourages residents to sign up for NotifyJoCo, a mass notification system for text, email or call alerts.

“It’s a free service,” Canaan said. “You don’t have to live in Johnson County to opt in, and if you work in Johnson County and want to sign up for alerts, you can do that. They can opt in to receive different kinds of alerts, from severe weather alerts, all the way down to water main breaks within their city.”

According to a Facebook post from Johnson County Emergency Management, over 42,000 messages were sent to individuals who had joined NotifyJoCo by 1:23 a.m. Wednesday.

Kansas City, Missouri, residents can also sign up for alerts here by entering their address. Texts and emails will be sent to those who subscribe. 

Stay tuned for more severe weather

With Kansas City in the midst of severe weather season, it’s important to stay up to date on any weather developments. Adolphson said the area is in store for another potential storm late Thursday, which may be severe.

“We do look like we’re going to warm up a little bit and maybe have a break, but we’re in that kind of a pattern,” Adolphson said.

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Abby Shepherd is a reporting intern for The Kansas City Beacon. She is from Olathe, Kansas, and is a rising senior at the University of Kansas.