Reflections on the Recent Tornadoes — Part 1: Moore

Out of all the big urban tornadoes of recent years — I suppose Tuscaloosa, Joplin, and Moore come to mind — only Moore I have been able to track from start to finish. I have a penchant for turning on my computer just when sh*t hits the fan, and this was certainly true for Tuscaloosa and Joplin. Moore was a different type of a tornado from my perspective – a slow-moving, lumbering giant that steadily marched towards civilization. A slow-motion train wreck.

(For reference: Tuscaloosa/April 27, 2011 reflection | Joplin reflection)

May 20th, 2013 was my free day. I had just graduated and my commencement ceremonies were over. Because of this, I missed the violent tornado action of the previous two days, and over the next two weeks, I’d go on trips and celebrate commencements with friends, so there wouldn’t be much time to watch tornadoes. Knowing this, I tweeted the following:

It was to prove extremely wrong. While conditions on May 20th were slightly less favorable for tornadoes than on the day before, the tornadoes that did form hit populated areas. So it was that Moore, OK became the epicenter of the week’s weather events.

I woke up around 11:30 local time to see storms develop. I actually remember the precursor to the tornado, a “thundershower” near Bridge Creek. Although smaller in size than the developing storms to the south, it grew very rapidly in a span of 10-20 minutes. The more backed winds, lower temperature-dewpoint spreads, position of the storm relative to the triple point, and affinity of Oklahoma City to tornadoes drew me to that region. However, a cold front was also sagging southward, and I soon discounted the cell on the basis that the cold front would overtake and undercut it.

Annotated radar image, with features mentioned in text labeled, about 1 hour prior to the tornado entering Moore.

Annotated radar image, with features mentioned in text labeled, about 1 hour prior to the tornado entering Moore.

About 10 minutes after my second tweet, the Moore tornado touched down; about 10 minutes after that, I turned on the News9 livestream to see a large tornado crossing I-44. The front stalled; the rest is history.

First screenshot I took from the live Oklahoma City News9 helicopter coverage.

First screenshot I took from the live Oklahoma City News9 helicopter coverage.

(Mesoscale study of what happened with Moore; to be written.)

For the Tuscaloosa and (especially) the Joplin events, I was in a state of disbelief. In my mind I kept saying, “this isn’t as bad as it looks”. Perhaps, in the Tuscaloosa case, this was because no tornado had struck a major urban area in 12 years. In the Joplin case, the tornado risk looked banal compared to the events of the previous month, so a disaster of similar magnitude looked unlikely. But with Moore, everyone knew what was happening. I will never forget those tense moments, watching the tornado track towards Moore, knowing that it would be 10, 5, only a matter of a couple of minutes before the town would be engulfed in the funnel. Knowing, that people would die. And saying out loud, with so many other weather enthusiasts and Oklahoma residents, “lift, lift, lift!” But it kept on going. And when it was over, the helicopter scenes of widespread destruction all but confirmed our worst fears: this was another Tuscaloosa, another Joplin.

The worst part of it all, besides the fatalities in the elementary school, was hearing the death toll rise from 10, to 37, to 51, to 91(!). How could a Joplin-sized death toll ever repeat itself again in such a tornado-aware community? The 1999 tornado tracked through a similar amount of real estate in Moore proper, while killing comparatively fewer (~11) people. So were people becoming more complacent with tornadoes? Did the advent of widespread tornado footage encourage people to watch, rather than cover? These questions raced through my mind that afternoon and evening. Fortunately, the next morning the death toll was revised down to 24, easing my concerns. The lesser housing density on the southern side of Moore, the favorable of time of day when most people were at work instead of home, storm shelters, and the general weather-awareness of Oklahoma citizens may have saved many lives. 

To be continued with May 31st…

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