By Leilani Haywood
Beth Johnson, 35, a pharmacist and resident of Greenwood, caught the third tornado of the year in Kansas with golf-ball sized hail while chasing a storm on May 1, 2018. This was the first day of tornadoes for 2018 in Kansas. A member of KC Storm Trackers, Johnson says, “Our team stayed under the broad area of rotation for almost three hours, capturing three tornadoes and at least one funnel cloud. We first watched the funnel form directly overhead near Wilson, KS, before it dissipated. We continued to follow the storm’s rotation and saw a very brief touchdown near Ellsworth, KS.”
Johnson’s team continued to stay near a “wall cloud” when the driver asked if she could see anything out of her window. She replied that she could see clouds directly out of her window and thought ‘I don’t think that’s normal.” “An EF3 tornado formed about a mile away from us a short time later between Culver and Tescott, KS,” she said. “It turned into a massive wedge, a half mile wide. No one was killed and very few structures were damaged, thankfully, since it was over a rural area. We also saw hail, larger than golf balls in Otis, KS.”
Chasing storms started in 2015, the same year she moved from her hometown Independence, MO to Greenwood. “I’ve always been in love with severe storms and tornadoes,” she said. “When I was around seven years old, I was at a friend’s house. I remember getting excited because we had a tornado warning, and the track of the storm on radar was perfect. I told my friend excitedly ‘the tornado looks like it’s heading straight for us!’ She immediately ran to her mother’s room and didn’t come back for a good thirty minutes. I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t excited like I was.”
Johnson took as many meteorology classes as she could for college as electives. A mother of two children, four-year-old Mason and seven-year-old Areanna, she says she was obsessed since age five and read every book she could get her hands on about clouds and weather. Her daughter wants to be a storm chaser just like her mom.
Johnson says she’s never been in a tornado although she had a close call in her own home. “I’ve chased from South Dakota to Texas, but I think the only time I’ve been surprised by a close call was in 2016 in my own home,” she said. “I was busy with my kids and hadn’t checked recent (weather) radar. I looked out the window and stared in awe as a perfect wall cloud with rotation went directly overhead. Despite being on the third floor of the house at the time, I was too awestruck to go to the basement. About 30 seconds after it passed, the weather radio signaled a tornado warning. I didn’t see the point in going to the basement since it had already passed.”
For 2018, Johnson says the storm season looks uneventful although it just takes one day to change everything. “That is the main reason for what we do,” she says. “Yes, we enjoy the adventure and love trying to forecast correctly, but ultimately, we stop everything to notify the National Weather Service or 911 if something is happening.”
Johnson has heard plenty of myths about tornado safety such as parking under an overpass, staying in your car, going to northwest corner of your house or opening your windows. Instead, she says you should get out of your car and lay low in a ditch and don’t park under an overpass because, “It’s the equivalent to sticking your finger in front of a garden hose. Similar to how the water speeds up, the small opening under an overpass forces the winds to speed up underneath as well.”
Instead of going to the northwest corner of your house, she says, “go to the lowest floor and find the innermost room, preferably a room with plumbing in the walls, as this increases the likelihood of the walls staying intact.” She added, “It is also not important to open windows for the related pressure changes.”
Johnson also recommends the following for safety during a tornado:
- Strap your baby into their car seats and hold them to your body.
- Cover yourself or get into a bathtub if possible.
- Make sure you have a weather radio that has plenty of batteries and is programmed to your location, just in case the power goes out.
- Keep an emergency kit in your basement. Include flashlights, a weather radio, required medications, and enough water and high protein foods to last a few days. Remember you won’t have electricity, so do not include anything that would require a microwave.
“I haven’t been in a tornado itself, but I saw my first tornado near Bird City, KS about twenty years ago.” she says. “It was before cell phones had cameras, so as much as I wanted to show everyone, I couldn’t. My sister and I were simply heading home from Colorado when we noticed a low hanging cloud, followed by ground circulation rising to meet it. She was terrified; I was on cloud nine.”