Meteorologists reached for superlatives to describe a tornado that barreled through two Kansas counties on its way into Missouri last week.
The National Weather Service on Tuesday said the twister that slammed parts of Anderson and Linn counties on Feb. 28 was classified as an EF-4, with wind speeds of 166 mph to 200 mph.
It was also the nation's most powerful so far this year, and the first one to get the EF-4 classification since the weather service switched Feb. 1 to the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which offers a more detailed analysis of tornado strength.
No tornado of such power had ever struck Kansas in February — or before March 13 of any year.
"It's unusual, but not as unusual as you might think," said Dan McCarthy, warning coordinator meteorologist at the Storm Prediction Center operated by the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.
It felt very unusual to Lee Wilson, a Linn County veterinarian. Wilson heard the deafening whine the evening of Feb. 28 as the twister approached, and he later watched lightning illuminate the funnel cloud roaring away from his house near Centerville.
"It's definitely my first winter one," he said, "and I hope it's my last."
Sheriff Marvin Stites, a lifelong Linn County resident, said the Feb. 28 tornado was the earliest he could recall in any year.
No deaths and no major injuries resulted from the tornado, although it caused extensive property damage in Linn County.
The same storm system spawned 50 reported tornadoes from Minnesota to the Gulf Coast, killing 20 people, including a 7-year-old Missouri girl and eight students at an Alabama high school.
The National Weather Service classified the Alabama tornado as an EF-3 with winds 136 to 165 mph. Storms are rated from EF-0 to EF-5, with the higher numbers being the most damaging.
Forecasters said winter is a good time to prepare for tornado season, even if it seems distant. In the Kansas City area, for example, peak season for twisters is April to early June, said Andy Bailey, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service at Pleasant Hill.
"Families need to sit down and plan what they would do if there is a tornado warning," Bailey said. "If they wait until the warning is issued, it could be too late."
Monitoring the weather service's broadcasts to weather radios and staying alert to other media is good policy, forecasters say.
Linn County, however, doesn't get reliable weather radio reception, and parts of the county lack emergency sirens.
For Wilson, who has been through four tornadoes in the county since 1979, the only bright spot was seeing neighbors help neighbors. The veterinarian said volunteers combed his neighborhood on Sunday.
"Within one afternoon," he said, "they had picked up three square miles of debris."