It is hard to believe, but for the last 27 years, the Andover tornado has been the measuring stick for all other tornadoes in the Wichita area.
Sure there have been others; May 3, 1999 in Haysville and April 14, 2012 in Oaklawn, but none of them hold a candle to the Andover tornado.
I was privileged to do a 25-year retrospective of the tornado during my time at KFDI News. You can listen to that, here:
The outbreak was well-forecasted by 1991 standards, with forecasters warning the day before of “a very significant severe weather producer with tornadoes occurring across the Central/Southern Plains.”
On the Friday morning of the outbreak, a large “high risk” was issued by forecaster Jack Hales. At Noon that day, the first “Particularly Dangerous Situation” tornado watch was issued. Essentially, every piece of the warning process (at that time) was used that day to protect life and limb, and it worked very well.
Typical of the bigger outbreaks in the Plains, the storms developed in waves — each one more powerful than the last — on that day.
The first round cranked up on the low-level jet in north-central Oklahoma during the early morning hours, and that moved into south-central Kansas, producing one to two-inch hail across Cowley county and into southeast Kansas.
A second wave of storms ignited on the warm front around 11 am in far northern Kansas and southern Nebraska. A supercell rooted along the warm front produced an F-3 tornado in Washington County, KS, but again, the main hazard produced from that clump of storms was damaging hail over baseball size.
The main event kicked off around 4 that afternoon, as the dryline moved east and the cap was removed. Minutes later, the storm responsible for the South Wichita/Andover tornado developed in southwest Harper county. The first severe warning of its life cycle was issued at 4:36 pm and the storm quickly intensified, producing golfball size hail west of Anthony.
As the storm continued to mature, it produced it’s first long-track tornado near Freeport in far eastern Harper County. The twister narrowly missed the town of Argonia before lifting after a run of 16 miles. As the storm cycled, it produced another tornado at 5:49 pm just a few miles southeast of Clearwater in far southern Sedgwick County. That tornado would go on to become the infamous “Andover Tornado.”
Here is a short video of former KSNW Chief Meteorologist Mike Smith providing coverage of the tornado as it moved across Sedgwick County that evening:
As the tornado continued northeast, it grew in size and intensity and moved toward the Haysville area, where it produced F-2 to F-3 damage in the area.
A few minutes later, it moved into the Wichita metro area near the intersection of 55th Street South and Broadway and continued its northeasterly jaunt right into McConnell Air Force Base. At the base, the tornado narrowly missed ten B-1 Bombers, some that were loaded with nuclear warheads. In all, the twister destroyed nine buildings on the base, including; the Officer’s Club, base hospital, library, elementary school & over 100 housing units. Sixteen people were injured.
The tornado continued to move northeast into one of Wichita’s budding subdivisions — Greenwich Heights — near Pawnee and Greenwich. There the tornado produced F-3 to F-4 damage, leveling many homes and injuring several people.
The peak of the disaster came in the town of Andover, where the twister produced a sizable swath of F-5 damage, centering on the Golden Spur Mobile Home Park. The National Weather Service office issued the tornado warning for Andover at 6:30 that evening, but the sirens failed, leaving police officers to go around town warning citizens of the impending danger. Fifteen minutes after the initial warning was issued, the tornado scored a direct hit.
Duke Evans was at Terradyne Golf Club (near 159th Street East and Central) for a benefit that evening, and shot this video as the behemoth moved through Andover:
As the tornado continued moving northeast, it skirted the northwest side of Towanda and met its final victims on the Kansas Turnpike. KSNW’s Gregg Jarrett and photojournalist Ted Lewis were headed back from an assignment in Topeka when they met the twister on the Kansas Turnpike north of El Dorado. Here is their video of the encounter, unedited:
All told, the Andover tornado was on the ground for 46 miles and part of an outbreak of 53 tornadoes that spanned from southern Iowa to northern Texas. Twelve of the 53 tornadoes were at least F-3 in strength.
Here in south-central Kansas, the tornado destroyed over 1,700 homes and wiped out 84 percent of the homes in the Golden Spur Mobile Home Park. 19 people were killed, and almost 300 were injured.