Kansas lies at the very center of the United States. It was named after the Kansa Native Americans and means “People of the South Wind”.
Kansas is nicknamed the Sunflower State and the Wheat State. It’s known as the Wheat State because it grows more wheat than any other state in the nation. Based on a single year’s wheat production, the state would be able to feed six loaves of bread to each person on earth — that’s a lot of wheat! Perhaps this is why the prairie and the plains are referred to as the breadbasket of the country.
Apart from wheat, Kansas is acknowledged as being:
- The home state of Dwight D Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States.
- The home of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz — You’ll have to go to Liberal to see her house.
- The birthplace of the first White Castle hamburger chain — Ironically enough, they are no longer any of them left in Kansas but they can be found in a few other states.
- The origin of the first airplane factory
- And having one of the windiest cities in the United States — It’s Dodge City, in case you’re wondering.
Kansas boasts breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, majestic star-filled nights, colorful rolling hills, striking sunflower fields, out-of-this-world caves, and surprisingly stunning storms. Some of those storms, however, are also known for being dangerous much like other natural disasters which pose a risk to life and property.
What natural disasters does Kansas have?
Kansas’ most common natural disasters include severe storms, floods, tornadoes, landslides, winter storms, and power outages. Other less significant disasters include droughts and earthquakes.
Between 1953 and 2019, Kansas declared 74 major disasters, of which severe storms and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
1. Severe Storms
Severe thunderstorms can happen year-round but they’re more likely to occur during the spring and summer seasons— especially between June and July. Kansas experiences approximately 50 thunderstorms per year. These storms are generally localized events that include heavy rainfall, high winds, baseball-sized hail, lightning, and on occasion, supercells (rotating thunderstorms).
Kansas ranks 3rd in the United States when it comes to total lightning flashes and 5th in the States for cloud-to-ground lightning. 2019 was an exceptional year with over 13.8 million lightning events. On the other hand, the Sunflower State has a low number of lightning fatalities and ranks 25th in the nation. It has only recorded 3 fatalities between 2010 to 2019.
The town of Coffeyville, KS holds the record for the heaviest hailstone in the world. The hailstone fell on September 3, 1970, measured 17.5 inches in circumference, and weighed 1.67 pounds. Scientists who studied it after the storm estimate that it made contact with the ground at a speed of 105 mph.
Data shows a significant increase in thunderstorm and lightning activity in Kansas over the past few decades, and there’s speculation that the numbers may continue to increase. It is very important to take precautions when a thunderstorm is forecasted. All thunderstorms are accompanied by lightning, which can strike more than 10 miles outside of the storm area. They can also contribute to flash flooding.
In the Sunflower State, floods are said to be responsible for “more property damage and loss of life than any other natural hazard.” There are many events that can trigger floods, including flash floods, overflowing rivers, rapid snowmelt, dam breaks, levee failure, ice or debris jams, soil saturation (especially after a wildfire), and heavy precipitation over a short period of time.
The Great Flood of 1993 was historically one of the worst floods in Kansas. Persistent and repetitive rainstorms in the same locations led to an unimaginable amount of precipitation. The rain began in May and didn’t end until September. Flooding was widespread across the Central United States— more specifically, it affected 9 states and hundreds of towns across more than 400,000 square miles. Seventy-five towns were completely underwater, 600 rivers were above their flood stage, and 150 major rivers and tributaries were affected. In some locations, the flood lingered for about 200 days.
Kansas suffered the worst damage from the 1993 floods. The overall damage included hundreds of failed levees, extreme erosion, the loss of over 10,000 residential and commercial properties, the inundation of 15 million acres of farmland (not to mention unusable for many years thereafter), the destruction of water and sewage treatment plants, and a major impact on transportation. Bridges were inaccessible, interstate highways and major roads were closed, 10 commercial airports flooded, and all railroad traffic in the Midwest was halted.
During what became the largest and most significant flood event to ever occur in the US, tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate, some permanently, and at least 50 people died as a direct result. The cost of damages exceeded $15 billion.
The USGS monitors flood activity across Kansas’ 180 stream gages. The death rate is higher than other disasters because people underestimate the power of moving water, so they attempt to cross floodwaters by foot or automobile and drown.
If you’ve heard the saying: “Turn around, don’t drown”, please take it to heart. Wherever floodwaters exist, there’s no way to know its depth nor the condition of the road underneath the water. It’s important to get to higher ground immediately. Flood maps in your area may help you determine safe locations you can get to.
Kansas is located in the heart of Tornado Alley and averages between 88 and 96 tornadoes each year. According to the Scientific American, there’s a reason why Kansas is prone to so many tornados. “The combination of the Gulf of Mexico to the south and the Rocky Mountains to the west provides ideal environmental conditions for the development of tornadoes more often there than any other place on earth.”
Tornado season in Kansas begins in April and lasts through June with another minor peak between October and November. The months of May and early June have the most tornadoes in the state, however, the strong and more violent tornadoes tend to occur between late April and early May. The peak times for tornado activity are between 4 to 8 pm CST. And the least likely hour, according to records of previous tornadoes, is between 7 and 8 am CST.
Sherman County in Northwest Kansas has the highest number of tornadoes in the state while Wyandotte County has the least, according to historical weather records.
The deadliest tornado in Kansas history occurred just after 10:30 pm on May 25, 1955, and killed 80 people. The town of Udall experienced almost complete devastation.
The costliest tornado outbreak in the state’s history occurred at 5:57 pm on April 26, 1991. The strongest one was an F5 tornado that struck Clearwater and stayed on the ground for over an hour and measured up to 500 yards in diameter at its peak. It traveled around 70 miles and passed through Wichita, McConnell, Andover, and Sedgwick County. This tornado damaged 102 housing units and 9 buildings and killed 17 people. The total estimated cost of damages was around $300 million.
During the tornado outbreak of May 4-5, 2007, nearly 95% of Greensburg was destroyed by an EF5 tornado! More than 60 people were injured and 11 others died in Greensburg alone.
May 23, 2008 marked the record for the total number of tornadoes in one day. The tornado count reached 70 and two fatalities were reported as a direct cause of these events.
Tornadoes are scary. Knowing what to do when one is predicted may give you peace of mind and help you act accordingly rather than reacting out of fear. One of the first things you should do is prepare (well in advance) a safe room where you and your family can take refuge.
Tornado warnings are generally sent out with a 10 minute advance time. This means that you should have an action plan memorized. The moment a warning is sent out, you should be able to identify a safe location nearby where you can shelter in place.
4. Winter Storms
Despite its nickname, it can get very chilly in the Sunflower State. The lowest ever reported temperature was -40°F in Lebanon, KS on February 13, 1905, however, the average low temperature can be in the 20°F’s during the winter months.
The average snowfall in the state is 19 inches per year, but it can vary dramatically depending on the location. For example, the average is 11 inches in Parsons versus 40 inches in Goodland. Some years it snows very little or nothing at all.
Snow is more likely to fall between the end of November through the end of March. January and February have the highest number of snowfall days. Francis has the record for the most snow in a single season with 99 inches between 1983 and 1984.
While Kansas experiences occasional snow storms and blizzards, it is particularly notorious for its ice storms. Ice storms lead to widespread power outages and damage to infrastructure, trees, power poles, power lines, treacherous roads that are impossible to travel.
The costliest ice storm in Kansas occurred on December 10 and 11, 2007. Nearly all of Kansas was covered in 1 to 2 inches of ice— some places received from 2 to 4 inches! This storm left about 260,000 people without power for up to two weeks. No fatalities were reported but the total cost of damages was over $136.2 million.
The winter season can have many challenges, from treacherous road conditions to power outages. Be sure to keep an emergency kit in your car with all the winter essentials and know what to do in case you become stranded or have to shelter at home for several days at a time. Our winter storm disaster guide has mitigation tips and safety information.
Kansas has woody trees that make the land more susceptible to wildfires, specifically the red cedar because they can become invasive if not carefully managed. These fires can be fueled by high winds, which is also common in the state. The Kansas wildfire season is in spring, beginning in late February and lasting through early April.
Two of the largest fires in Kansas’ recorded history occurred almost back-to-back:
- In March 2016, the Anderson Creek Fire burned 278,672 acres in southern Kansas (total 367,619 acres between Kansas and Oklahoma).
- In March 2017, the Starbuck fire burned over 500,000 acres near Wichita (662,687 total acres between Kansas and Oklahoma). That was the largest wildfire in Kansas history and occurred after a power line got knocked down during a wind storm.
While we cannot entirely protect our homes from the threat of wildfires, we should do what we can to reduce our level of risk. Some tips include storing any flammable objects you own (such as propane tanks and firewood) far away from your home, garage, shed, etc.
If you’re interested in changing your landscaping, look into which plants and shrubbery work best for deterring fires and surround your property with those. It’s important to note the correlation between wildfires and the increased likelihood of floods and mudslides thereafter.
6. Power Outages
Every natural disaster puts our electrical systems at risk of failure. Two of the most common causes of power outages are storms and controlled (rolling outages) due to the high demand for electricity.
One of the largest outages occurred in February 2021 and affected over 105,000 people. A series of intermittent outages were in effect to control the high demand and prevent the possibility of putting too much stress to the power lines, which could lead to longer uncontrolled outages.
The ice storm that occurred between December 8 through 12, 2007 cut power to over 1 million homes and businesses across the Great Plains, including much of Kansas.
While we can hope that if we experience a power outage it will only last a short time, the truth is that there’s always the chance that it could last for days or even weeks. Luckily, there’s a lot you can do now to ensure you and your family’s needs will be covered regardless. First, update your emergency kit with the essential supplies to survive a long-term outage — find a list of recommendations here.
Put your supplies to the test by having a blackout day in which you turn off the electricity to the house for a minimum of 24 hours. Use whatever you have in your kit and around the house to live off of. Based on your experience, you can polish up your plan and update any items your kit may need.
While landslides are not too common in Kansas, they can happen in hilly terrains. (Fun fact: The topography of Kansas is said to be very similar to the topography of a pancake. In other words, it’s flat!)
Shale rocks, commonly found in Kansas, are mostly associated with landslides. This type of rock weathers into clay-like soil which is landslide-prone.
Landslides can be triggered by soil saturation, heavy precipitation, rock falls, and failed steep slopes. The steeper the slope angle, the higher the risk of landslides or rock slides. As before mentioned, there is a higher vulnerability after wildfires and flood events.
Creeps are also common and widespread throughout Kansas. Creeps occur when there is a slow downward movement of soil and rocks. You’ll notice tilted trees, walls, and poles.
In order to become prepared for a landslide, you must know your local risk. Watch out for abnormally leaning trees and fences that are slowly tipping over. In this guide, we show you where to find your risk as well as offer mitigation and safety tips.
Even if your home is not under a direct threat, the roads leading in and out of your community may be. Identify alternate routes that you can use should one of them become blocked temporarily or destroyed during a landslip.
8. Heat Waves and Droughts
The temperature in Kansas doesn’t get ridiculously hot— it averages between 80 to 90°F in the summertime— but the humidity levels can make it feel much warmer, therefore extreme heat is possible. The Sunflower State’s hottest time of the year is mid-July. The highest temperature recorded was 121°F in Fredonia on July 18, 1936, as well as 121°F in Alton on July 24, 1936.
Kansas has approximately 35 dangerous heat days a year and over 70,000 people are vulnerable. One of the worst heat waves occurred in 2011. During that period of time, Wichita reached 111 °F twice— once in July and once in August.
Kansas faces one of the highest threats of drought in the US but is currently at no risk (as of the writing of this article). The longest duration of drought in Kansas lasted 248 weeks beginning on November 9, 2010 and ending on August 4, 2015.
During heat waves, cooling centers may open to help those at risk. In any case, it’s important to know safety practices and look out for signs of heat illness within ourselves and others. If Kansas is going through a drought and a heat wave at the same time, conserve water as best you can.
Kansas is not necessarily earthquake-prone but earthquakes do occur. In terms of risk, it ranks 45th among all 50 states.
The Humboldt Fault Zone is a series of faults that run across east-central Kansas. Some sources say that the Humboldt Fault Zone is capable of generating an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 or higher once every 500 years, and while a moderate earthquake could occur along that fault at some point, currently the majority of quakes are below a 2.0 magnitude and are rarely felt.
One of the largest earthquakes in recent years occurred in 2014 in Sumner County. It had a magnitude of 4.9 and caused minor damage to buildings.
A small earthquake can cause a surprising amount of damage, so be sure to do a walk-through of your home to ensure everything that could potentially break or be damaged is secured.
Natural disaster resources for Kansas
Kansas is at risk of several natural disasters, but luckily there's a lot of help available to ensure that you are equipped to handle them.
- Sign up for alerts on your phone with the NOAA Weather App. This is one of the easiest ways to receive notifications of weather alerts and warnings if your phone is charged, of course.
- Not all disasters are equal… and neither should be the way that you prepare for them. That is why we’ve created unique guides per disaster type. Here you will find mitigation strategies, safety tips, printable checklists, and much more to help you become ready for anything. Find all of our disaster guides here.
- Learning among a group of like-minded individuals can help solidify your preparedness knowledge and turn it into experience. Consider joining the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This organization trains the community on all things preparedness, including first aid. All classes are free and are taught by certified law enforcement individuals. Find your local CERT here.
- If you’re a business owner or are part of an organization that is looking for a way to help in post-disaster relief, you can check out Kansas’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). This organization works to connect any available resources to meet the needs of the affected community.
- To learn about pre and post-disaster services available in Kansas, check out the Kansas Division of Emergency Management website.
I hope you liked reading about natural disasters in Kansas.
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Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!