Tornadoes from a different eye

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Mary Abounabhan, sophomore in business management, talks about her experience with the tornado that hit Manhattan. (Hamza Ahmed | The Collegian)

The sirens have sounded, and as students and faculty make their way underground, Karen Alviar, postdoctoral research associate, and her husband, Adrian Alviar, stay behind to marvel at the power and strength of the tornadic storm.

For Kansas natives, the tornado warnings late last month were simply the beginning of the annual tornado season, but for the Alviars, international students and some out-of-state students, the storms marked their first exposure to the chaotic, frightening and occasionally deadly threat of tornadoes on the Kansas prairie.

“I was scared because I’d read about tornadoes,” Karen said. “Adrian is adventurous and curious. The sirens went off, and what he did was he went to the window and he looked outside. I told him, ‘We need to go downstairs.’ I was more scared than curious about what was happening.”

Originally from the Philippines, the Alviars said they were accustomed to the torrential downpours and flooding associated with typhoons in the western Pacific Ocean, but Karen said the intensity of the two storms does not compare.

“The difference is, in the Philippines, we are more scared of the flooding, but we have options,” Karen said. “We can just go upstairs or to higher ground. Tornadoes are more abrupt. They’re quicker.”

Mary Abounabhan, sophomore in business management who is originally from Lebanon, was in the K-State Student Union on April 26 when people inside the building were instructed to descend into the basement.

“It was me and another girl who had never experienced a tornado warning before,” Abounabhan said. “We both had very different reactions. I was kind of excited because it was very new. The place I’m from has very nice weather — no severe weather of any kind. This girl thought we were going to die in the basement, but I just figured that everybody else was calm and that these people knew what they’re doing. It was fun to see how we both reacted differently.”

Abounabhan said she was scared but eager to experience a tornado.

“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” Abounabhan said. “Both times there have been warnings, but no actual tornadoes. It’d be freaky to actually undergo a tornado with the winds that can flip cars around. It’d freak me out, but I’d be excited to see it.”

Ian Madewell, freshman in political science from San Antonio, said the weather in Texas is typically tamer than the wild, unpredictable weather in Kansas.

“The only exotic weather that my part of Texas gets is drought, really,” Madewell said. “It’s much more fun in Kansas. You have stormy wind, tornadoes. I don’t work myself up into a fit about the weather here, but I’m alright with going to the basement and hanging out during tornado warnings.”

The International Student and Scholar Services program sponsors a workshop each semester that educates international students on Kansas weather. Mary Knapp, assistant state climatologist, leads the workshop and educates international students primarily in the realities of the danger imposed by tornadic storms, as well as how to remain aware of the potential for destructive storms.

“My hope is that these students take away what they need to be prepared and that they register with an alert system, that they have a plan in place with their family and that they are a little bit more prepared for the dangers of Kansas weather, so they can be safe and enjoy their time at K-State,” Knapp said. “I hope that they learn not to be afraid of what the weather is like, but to be confident that they can do the best they can to be safe in these events.”

Knapp said she emphasizes the different ways students can stay updated on weather conditions, including signing up for the university’s alert system. When inclement weather is forecast and dangerous conditions are expected, the university notifies students of the storms by phone, email and text message.

According to Knapp, it can be hard to understand the lethality of tornadoes.

“It’s difficult to really comprehend the hazards if you haven’t experienced the weather,” Knapp said. “There are even natives of Kansas that may not comprehend exactly the destruction that can come with a tornado if they haven’t been in a tornado or haven’t seen the aftermath of one. It’s very easy to get complacent.”

Although the storms on April 24 and 26 failed to produce tornadoes or significant damage, the K-State campus has been hit by tornadoes several times throughout its history. Most recently, an EF4 tornado hit K-State in June of 2008, causing over $20 million in damages to campus and destroying more than 45 residences in Manhattan, according to The Collegian article “Campus almost back to normal after tornado.” In that instance, emergency preparation on the part of students and Manhattan residents helped to prevent any deaths or injuries.

June 8 will also mark the 50th anniversary of a tornado that wreaked destruction from Manhattan to Leavenworth and killed 17 people. According to The Collegian article “Destructive tornado claimed lives,” most of the damage sustained by campus was concentrated around the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station and Jardine Terrace, as the Jardine Complex was formerly named.

The costs of the damages to campus in 1966 were estimated to be $8 million, which adjusted for inflation is nearly $60 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In both instances, the rain and winds subsided and K-State students and faculty worked to make the necessary repairs and return to regular life. The situation was similar during the tornado warnings in late April: The sirens stopped, and the air settled into silence.

No tornadoes have hit campus this year, but the Alviars said they are left with the new experience of having undergone a tornado warning. With the experience, the couple said they now feel confident in their ability to tackle future storms. Although the Alviars said they are returning to the Philippines at the end of the month, they said preparation is essential for students who may find themselves clueless and scared in the basement.

“Always be ready,” Adrian said. “We have a backpack of things to bring if this happens again. It happened to us with the first storm, and we didn’t bring our passports with us. The next storm, we were prepared and had everything with us.”

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I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a 2019 K-State graduate in journalism and former editor-in-chief of the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email the Collegian team at news@kstatecollegian.com.