Day 14 - Monster Oklahoma Storm

31 May 2013

It was clear from the first read of the SPC’s convective outlook for the day that today was going to be a dangerous day across much of Oklahoma in regards to the storms that were anticipated later this afternoon. The atmosphere was teetering on becoming explosive. The heating and moisture combined in the warm sector that overspread much of Oklahoma was violently unstable and it was forecast that any storms that fired along the dryline draping north to south across the west side of Oklahnoma would erupt and potentially become tornadic within a short amount of time. Large hail, damaging winds and strong to violent tornadoes were expected. A PDS (particularly dangerous situation) was issued by the SPC, and it was clear that everyone was on edge. Flashing road signs along Interstate 35 that runs vertically through the centre of Oklahoma, warned motorists of the anticipated severe storms expected between 4 and 8pm. Passersby and people in gas stations passed the message onto each other. It was a morning of edginess. We had never been out here in these circumstances before. We were both extremely alert but secure in our joint decision that we would stick around and try to get on some storms early, but as soon as things looked like they were becoming too risky we would bail out and let the storms pass. This was not the type of situation that appealed to us.

Having chased just north of Oklahoma City the previous day, we picked a spot on the dryline that we were familiar with, hoping that an existing knowledge of the road network in this area would give us a favourable advantage. Many of our chasing friends however had opted to wait further south, to the west of the city. At about 4pm, the cumulus towers started going up. Within about 5 mins the clouds had started to anvil and the first few spots of rain could be felt. We tried to decide what to do. It was clear however that our guarded approach to the day ahead hampered our natural instincts for any particular course of action.  We knew each decision was going to be vital and had to be sensible and clever. We headed in toward the cell a little to the north. It was the one that had started to grow the most and we wanted to catch it at its early stage of initiation before it blew up too big. We headed to Kingfisher about 12 miles west and headed north on the road up to our chosen storm. However, this was all the time needed for the cells further south to explode and before we knew it, there was no going back the way we came. Also, the storm to our north was now at a stage where it had blocked the road east away from it; the road we had been planning to take once up there. I had found another earlier road east on our navigation system that I was keeping for emergencies but I had been sure we weren’t going to need it. However, all the storms started showing signs of rotation, including the one straight ahead that was blocking all roads out of it. We had to take the emergency road east. I looked upon it as an emergency road because I wasn’t 100% sure it was paved, and farm tracks are impossible to drive along in a car with only road tyres. Luckily it was paved. It was now dark, there was lightning all around and we knew we had to get out of there. I still can’t quite believe that all this happened within the space of 15 minutes from the initial towers going up. Even with a sensible approach and massive respect for the situation, we had still nearly been caught out.

So we headed east, just skirting the back end of the most eastern cell and got south before the tail end of the storms blocked our path. From this point forward it was a case of trying to get as far ahead of the storms to allow ourselves to head south without getting caught in their eastward progression.

We drove east for about 2 hours! For our entire journey, we were listening to live coverage on the radio. It was horrendous. The cyclonic flow in the most southern storm had grown to nearly half a mile wide and the rotation at ground level was reaching velocities that had never been seen before. Multiple tornadoes and vortices were being reported by the numerous chasers in the area and being confirmed on radar. Radar also picked up that the circulation was oscillating on its current trajectory, something often seen with hurricanes, but this would have been hard to notice at the surface. Some chasers and storm trackers were even warned they were getting too close. And the worst thing was the storm was entering an area of even greater instability, its strength anticipated to intensify as it drew ever closer to Oklahoma City. As we drove, we kept a close eye on where our friends were placed around the storm through the use of spotter network. They had been further south than us and were therefore able to track with the circulation. Although we could see their position what was not clear was the horrendous circumstances in which they were chasing. Winds had brought down power lines and fallen trees blocked roads, multiple areas of circulation were hurtling bits of ripped up outbuildings and farm machinery across the area. There were cars off the road and others with hoods ripped off. One of the vehicles from the weather channel had been thrown 200ft through the air. It looked as though this particular storm had caught many off guard and what was all the more scary was that the only unblocked roads south out of the storm were now clogged up with chasers all wanting to get the hell out of there. I tell the story like I was there but this has all come from others. I am very, very glad we weren’t and it’s for these reasons, such chasing situations in such dangerous storms do not appeal to us. As the storm approached Oklahoma City, residents were told to seek underground shelter or get south. This resulted in interstates becoming jammed as the residents sat stuck like sitting ducks in the path of the monster storm.

We stayed at a safe distance but even at 20 miles away, we were still hit with loud rumbles  of thunder and lightning directly above us as we drove around the storm. Oklahoma, the cities and towns to the west including El Reno, Yukon and Union City and many southern suburbs, including Moore once again, got directly hit by violent tornadoes, damaging straight line winds and flooding in the wake of the storm.

Our friends luckily escaped unscathed but their nerves were shot. Others didn’t. Maintaining a healthy respect for these storms and how they can turn violent and catch people out is always at the back of our minds. The media is often drawn to many people who lack such awareness and it’s unbelievable that so many of these gung ho chasers weren’t more badly injured. What saddens us and so many others however is the unjust fate of one of the most respected and honourable storm chasers there has ever been. Tim Samaras, a fantastic guy who has dedicated his life to scientific research of these storms, his son Paul and driver Carl got caught up in the El Reno tornado and didn’t make it. It is hard for us to believe this has happened to Tim, our all time most respected individual in this field and it brings home in the rawest manner the power these storms hold and the devastation they can impart on human life. We can only take solace in the fact that he loved what he did and was ever gushing about how great his job was. He died doing what he was great at and what he loved, but he will be missed ever so much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Fri May 2013

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Fri May 2013

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