Failure of Lawrence airport weather station adds mystery to Saturday’s storm

A tree at 212 North Fourth uprooted during Saturday's storm crushed a pickup and damaged a neighboring house. The National Weather Service in Topeka said winds that may have been as strong as 70 mph caused the extensive damage in North Lawrence.

Because of a power failure at the official weather station at Lawrence Municipal Airport, there will never be an official record of how much rain fell or how hard the wind blew during Saturday’s storm.

Early in the storm, power was lost to the official national weather station at Lawrence Municipal Airport, which would have provided that information, said Bryan Baerg, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Topeka. The station does have battery backup power, but that is limited to about 20 minutes, he said. The outage prevented the weather service from recording complete data from the storm, including rainfall amounts.

“It’s all electronically driven,” Baerg said.

Because of the outage, the weather service only recorded about a half-inch of rainfall from the storm. Dan Klinger, a retired supervisor of the Kansas City International Airport weather office, now coordinates an area volunteer network of weather station operators. In an email to the Journal-World, he estimated 1.45 inches of rain fell at the airport from about 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday.

It’s the second failure of the airport weather station during recent large storms. The station also failed on Aug. 21, when heavy rains caused widespread flooding in the county. Baerg said that failure was caused when some outside objects, which might have included such items as grass or spider webs, got into the rainfall measuring system’s tipping bucket and “significantly” skewered observations.

The weather service continues to maintain Saturday’s North Lawrence damage was caused by straight-line winds and not a microburst. Baerg said that finding was based on the scope of wind damage, which continued into Leavenworth County. Damage from a microburst would have been much more localized, he said.

Although the weather service hasn’t had personnel directly view North Lawrence damage, it has reviewed photographs of storm damage, Baerg said. From that, the weather service estimates the storm packed winds of 65 to 70 mph in North Lawrence, he said.

In his email, Klinger doesn’t doubt an earlier weather service estimate of winds as strong as 75 mph associated with the storm. But he does question how those were made with the weather station out of service. Klinger also believes the North Lawrence damage was from a “wet microburst,” and said multiple microbursts could account for the widespread wind damage.

Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Association, said the lack of information about the storm has led some in the community to underestimate the damage in North Lawrence.

“That was not a minor storm,” he said. “We had a tremendous amount of property damage. We lost three or four houses from trees falling on houses.”

Jane Blocher, executive director of the Douglas County Red Cross, said one North Lawrence family contracted the agency Monday morning for assistance because the family residence was left uninhabitable from a falling tree.

Boyle praised both the city and community’s response to the storm. City crews were on hand almost immediately after the storm to help start clearing the many streets in North Lawrence made impassible from downed trees and limbs. They also returned early Sunday to continue the work, Boyle said.

Community members came Sunday to North Lawrence to help residents with the cleanup, while others handed out water or food to those working, Boyle said. Jimmy John’s restaurant and local Boy Scouts provided sandwiches, drinks and snacks to residents, volunteers and city workers Sunday afternoon at Lyons Park, he said.

Lawrence Public Works Director Chuck Soules said the storm caused more tree damage than any wind or ice storm in recent years.

“It was pretty substantial,” he said. “We’ll spend the rest of this week and next week cleaning up.”

To aid residents in cleanup, the city added weekday hours for the brush composting site at 1429 E. 11th St., which is usually open only on Saturdays, Soules said. It would be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through Saturday.

“We’ll have the composting site open at least through Saturday,” he said. “We’ll take a look at where we are then. If we need to keep it open longer, we’ll consider that, too.”

Soules said the flooding at the Union Pacific Railroad underpass on Second Street during the storm occurred when all power to the site’s stormwater lift pump was lost. The primary line to North Lawrence was knocked out from the storm, and Westar Energy shut down the secondary line as a safety precaution because of the many downed power lines in the neighborhood, he said.

“The city has never had a backup generator for that pump,” he said. “That’s something we are going to look at.”