Perspective on the Moore tornado from a former “Okie”

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – I want to take a moment to talk about what happened in Moore, OK yesterday. Not only will this single tornado likely go down as one of the biggest on record, it will be remembered as one of our deadliest single tornadoes in recent memory.

I knew yesterday was primed to be a bad day. As soon as I saw the storms fire and the radar exhibit classic supercell structure, I feared for the worst. Once the tornado was on the ground, it expanded and strengthened like a swelling monster. Horrified, I watched the power-flashes on the ground, indicating neighborhoods were being decimated. I knew people’s lives were not only being upended in destruction, but that likely some were ending that moment.

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NOAA Visible satellite image from 2:55pm CT May 20, 2013 as the tornado was developing near Newcastle, OK.

Oklahoma_amo_2013140NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Adam Voiland. Instrument: Aqua – MODIS

This NOAA animation shows the GOES-13 visible imagery during the daylight hours of May 20, 2013.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the tornado’s rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale is an EF5, with winds ranging 200-210 mph, specifically at Briarwood Elementary School. Simply put, anything in this tornado’s path was likely going to be wiped off the map. Literally. And in some cases, it was.

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NWS Norman: This is a preliminary tornado track for the tornado that affected Newcastle, Moore, and Oklahoma City on May 20, 2013.

The National Weather Service gave those first impacted by the tornado 16 minutes’ warning, before it had even touched down. Even with that lead time, for some people, there simply wasn’t a safe enough place to go. There was nothing more they could do but hunker down in the safest place possible, and hope to survive. Some did, incredibly.

The Moore area, as I explained in the video above, has been hit before. Our sister station KFOR in Oklahoma City has this interactive map where you can compare the previous tracks of tornadoes through Moore, OK here: http://kfor.com/2013/05/20/interactive-map-1999-2003-2013-moore-tornadoes/

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MAP: National Weather Service Norman, OK

I personally remember May 8, 2003. I was moving out of my dorms at the University of Oklahoma that day. It was so hot, dripping with humidity, and sunny. I knew there was the threat for severe weather by the afternoon, so I was hustling to move as much as I could through lunch-time. And then it began. I remember looking north from Norman toward the ominous supercell heading for Moore. I remember driving north on I-35 the next day and seeing the damage on both sides of the interstate. What I saw then was shocking, but is far less extreme than what I watched yesterday on TV, and what I remember watching as a teenager in 1999.

It’s worse. Much worse. Slabbed neighborhoods. Scarred ground. Truly, this was one of those tornadoes where if you weren’t underground, your odds of survival were slim. People who probably took all of the right tornado safety precautions still died.

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Aerial photo shared by Tom Kippen of Moore, OK.

Glenn Lewis, Mayor of Moore, told CBS This Morning that six neighborhoods were slabbed in the Moore area.

At its widest, the tornado width was up to 1.3 miles. That’s wider than the May 3, 1999 Moore tornado, which was about a mile wide. However, the May 20, 2013 tornado wasn’t on the ground as long as the May 3, 1999 was, which tracked almost an hour and a half on the ground for 38 miles from Chickasha through south Oklahoma City and the suburbs of Bridge Creek, Newcastle, Moore, Midwest City and Del City.

Many of you ask me about the safety of being in a vehicle during a tornado. Vehicles are one of the worst places to be in a tornado. This photo below shows why you should abandon vehicles if a tornado is coming at you while you’re traveling. Vehicles, even huge, heavy big rigs, will be tossed like toys, along with other debris (like pieces of houses, trees and other vehicles).577634_622114451151750_868802117_nMoore, OK (from KFOR).

Some of you have asked me why there aren’t more basements and big underground storm shelters in Oklahoma, especially considering the greater risk for more frequent and bigger tornadoes. Well that goes back to the ground itself. Oklahoma soil is a bit unstable. Homes shift and crack over time (I had to reinforce my home’s foundation with ten supports drilled into the ground, which then lifted the sinking side of the house). Because of that, basements aren’t often built because of the expense and maintenance required. They often flood, too. And even if there were a basement, the house above can still collapse into the basement below, harming those seeking shelter in the basement. The force of 166-200mph+ winds cannot be underestimated.

The best structure to be in during a tornado like yesterday’s (EF4-EF5) is an underground, compact tornado shelter. These are usually the size of a VW Beetle and are concrete and steel reinforced. They remind me of the Cold War era bomb shelters.

The number of those killed by the tornado Monday is still fluctuating. Follow wtvr.com for updates. Then put that number in perspective with this list of the deadliest U.S. tornadoes. As of this blog posting, dozens of bodies are still being processed by medical examiners. The 11 a.m. ET May 21, 2013 update from the Medical Examiner reports 24 fatalities, including 9 children, all from the Moore area. Although the exact cause of death of each victim has not been released, it is worth noting that the majority of deaths in these kinds of situations are from blunt-force trauma to the body.

I went to meteorology school at the University of Oklahoma with Bob Fritchie, who was documenting the thunderstorm’s development, tornadic turn, and subsequent destruction. You can view his incredible photo gallery and read his moving commentary HERE.

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Fritchie writes, “It really made me nauseous to watch…and I felt sick again processing photos. I have always found storms fascinating, but they are capable of incredible violence. I can only hope that the images can motivate you to help out with the relief effort, which will be considerable in *both* magnitude and duration.”

You can, and should, prepare now for tornadoes in Virginia. Download our FREE CBS 6 apps, and I also strongly encourage you to download the new free Red Cross Tornado App. It could save your life. (P.S. they also have apps for Hurricanes and Earthquakes, which are incredibly informative and helpful).
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Tornadoes can happen any time of the year in Virginia, but the Spring through early Fall months are when we get most of our tornadoes. July shows the peak for tornadoes during our hot, humid afternoons and early evenings.966347_622389384457590_745326838_o

More than 90% of those July tornadoes have been EF0/F0 and EF1/F1 smaller, but still destructive, tornadoes. Those wind speeds on the new EF scale range 65-110 mph for EF0-EF1 rated tornadoes.

In case you’re wondering about Virginia’s tornado history, here’s the info (from TornadoHistoryProject.com database). The vast majority of our tornadoes are not the kind that requires you to be underground to survive. Taking the tornado safety precautions we give you usually save lives in Virginia (lowest level, most interior room of a well-built structure).
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As Virginia enters its more active severe weather time of the year, please prepare now. Make a plan for your family, your workplace, and when you’re on the go. Make an emergency kit for your car and your home. Know your surroundings and how to navigate them after a disaster. Know to be aware of danger on the ground (fallen wires, natural gas leaks, sharp debris). And get first aid training, so that you can potentially save your life or someone else’s. The Red Cross has great tips on how to prepare for a disaster like a tornado.

I earned my meteorology degree at The University of Oklahoma. Chief Meteorologist Zach Daniel did, too. Oklahoma was our home for years. All of us on the CBS 6 Storm Team have extensive severe weather experience and expertise. We take the lessons we learned in other parts of the country and bring them to you, here in central Virginia. We will always strive to give you the best weather information so that you can make the best-informed decisions for you and your family’s safety.

Stay with CBS 6, we’ll keep you ahead of the storm.

I’ll leave you with this full-disk image from NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite taken at 20:45 UTC (3:45 p.m. EDT) Monday, May 20, 2013. It shows the storm system in Oklahoma that generated the Moore EF4 tornado (winds 166 to 200 mph).
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Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project, Dennis Chesters. Go here to see/download images from this event: http://bit.ly/10j1hUf

Meteorologist Carrie Rose
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