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Johnson County had 2 tornadoes touch down, so why didn't any storm sirens go off?

A downed tree in Prairie Village off of 75th Street and Nall Avenue following the May 2024 tornado.
Juliana Garcia
Johnson County Post
A large tree along Gilham Road near 42nd Street on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 is one of many that were blown down or that dropped large branches following a line of storms that moved through the metro in recent days.

Two tornadoes were confirmed out of Sunday evening’s storm — one in western Shawnee and another around 79th Street and Lamar Avenue. But neither county nor city outdoor warning sirens went off, nor was there any alert issued.

The two tornadoes that touched down in Johnson County on Sunday night formed and dissipated before a tornado warning could be issued and sirens set off, county and weather service officials said.

Johnson Countians woke up Monday to the news that two tornadoes had been confirmed out of the evening’s storm — one in western Shawnee near Mill Valley High and another around 79th Street and Lamar Avenue, near the border between Prairie Village and Overland Park.

However, neither county nor city outdoor warning sirens went off, nor was there any alert from the county’s NotifyJoCo alert system.

To add to the confusion, Tuesday’s thunderstorms set off sirens in the Kansas City metro even though no tornado warnings had been issued for Jackson County and the storms had already passed through. The Kansas City Fire Department said that a dispatcher accidentally issued a citywide alert when they were trying to only warn Cass County.

What has to happen for tornado sirens to go off?

It takes a declaration of a tornado warning by the National Weather Service or confirmed sightings by trained spotters for the county and city warning systems to be activated, say officials at both entities.

As the storm approached Sunday, the weather service had only issued a severe thunderstorm warning.

“Every once in a while an isolated part of a storm system spins just enough to form a brief tornado, which is what happened Sunday night,” said Jon Kurtz, of the National Weather Service.

In those cases, nothing may stand out on radar, and “we do our best to capture it,” but in some cases the events only last a couple of minutes, or might even disappear between radar scans, he said.

An EF-1 tornado touched down south of Mill Valley High in Shawnee at 10:30 p.m. Sunday and traveled north-northeast before it ended near Johnson Drive at 10:36 p.m., according to the weather service.

A second tornado hit western Prairie Village, setting down near 79th and Lamar at 10:39 p.m. and ending at 10:50 p.m. at the western edge of Mission Hills. That one was estimated to be mostly an EF-0, with pockets of EF-1 damage, the weather service reported.

Where was most of the tornado damage?

By Tuesday morning, social media was full of comments about the damage, loss of power and lack of tornado warnings.

One Prairie Village resident near 79th Street and Lamar Avenue, who asked not to be named, told the Post she heard a “crazy sounding wind” at what would have been the beginning of the tornado.

She said a large tree branch fell through her neighbor’s roof and that workers came later to remove a concrete slab from the middle of the street, which may have come from construction of the new Tomahawk Elementary school nearby.

Another neighbor in that area, who also wished not to be named, said she saw some severe damage in the Prairie Fields neighborhood of Overland Park, with trees and limbs blown down onto roofs and driveways.

Meanwhile, Mill Valley High was back in session Tuesday after damages there, most of it confined to the school’s athletics complex, said Alvie Cater, a USD 232 spokesperson.

The fencing, scoreboard, flag pole, storage sheds and ticket booths were all damaged. The north fieldhouse also sustained some structural damage, he said, and one of the HVAC units on the roof was also hit, causing a gas leak that prompted the district to cancel classes at the school Monday.

There is no formal estimate of damage so far, and cleanup is underway, Cater added.

A large lies on a grassy patch near a sidewalk. It is torn way from its roots at the base of the tree.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A large tree lays on Gilham Road near 42nd Street on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. It's one of many trees around the Kansas City metro that were downed by storms in recent days.

Cities are still working through cleanup plans

In Overland Park, the initial assessment of damage on Monday found mostly tree limbs down, partially or fully blocking about 80 streets, said city spokesperson Meg Ralph.

City crews were able to get the streets passable Monday and will return to pick up debris in the coming days, Ralph said.

But more bad weather was possible for Wednesday, forecasters said, and the city will decide on storm-related debris collection after checking on any more damage from that, she said.

Prairie Village city councilmembers discussed storm damage at their Monday meeting.

The tornado carved a path through part of the city, with notable damage on Lamar Avenue from 63rd to 83rd streets, said Public Works Director Keith Bredehoeft.

City Administrator Wes Jordan estimated 100 homes may have been damaged. His ballpark estimate was $50,000 to $100,000 total.

Jordan added that the city could financially handle one more major storm before having to dip into reserves. Prairie Village officials may ask waste hauler Republic Services for leniency with regular pickup to account for cleanup.

Shawnee is accepting debris from residents at the southwest corner of Johnson Drive and Renner Road. Days and hours can be found here.

Fairway started curbside collection of brush from the storm on Tuesday. Details here.

Emergency planners say to have multiple ways to receive warnings

As the storm season progresses, Claire Canaan, assistant director of community preparedness for the county emergency management department, recommended that residents stay prepared by having a variety of sources to get weather warnings.

“We don’t want people to rely solely on outdoor warning sirens,” she said.

Outdoor sirens are intended to warn people who are outdoors, but may be harder to hear from inside a house during the noise of a wind and hail storm, she said. Instead, people should supplement with weather radio, she said.

The county will turn on the sirens if the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, or if there is a confirmed sighting by a trained spotter, Canaan said. But information about other weather dangers is available through NotifyJoCo, and residents can adjust their account setting to show other alerts as well.

Juliana Garcia and Andrew Gaug contributed reporting. This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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