Reflections on a Violent Week of Weather in the Plains


Oklahoma is my home. I was born and raised there.  I graduated from the University of Oklahoma. My hometown is Shawnee — the town that was struck by an EF-4 tornado on Sunday afternoon and then threatened by the EF-5 that destroyed much of Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday.

I’m a Sooner through and through.

Needless to say, watching the disaster unfold from afar has been stressful, emotional, and difficult to comprehend. Thankfully, I live and work in a place filled with compassionate souls who understand all too well what it’s like to see their home ravaged by the unimaginable force of a tornado.

Taken near the west side of Shawnee, OK. Sunday May 19th.

Taken by my brother-in-law near the west side of Shawnee, OK. Sunday, May 19th.

My family is fine.  Sunday’s tornado came close enough that my brother-in-law was able to take this picture from his vantage point. They were in a place with nearby shelter, but my parents were not.  Thankfully, there was a safe escape route which was not needed in the end.  But, it was comforting to know they had a way out.

There was no such safe route on Monday.  As the two-mile-wide EF-5 tornado was destroying part of Moore, I had my eyes on Shawnee. The radar signature was one of an unmistakable killer. It’s a helpless feeling knowing that it’s moving in the general direction of loved ones with no shelter and no safe escape route.

Radar image of tornadic supercell before impacting Moore, OK.

Radar image of tornadic supercell before impacting Moore, OK.

Again, thankfully, the storm turned north and dissipated. My mother assures me she will be getting a shelter soon.

My experience over the past two days, although very mild compared to what many in the Tennessee Valley have experienced, brought into sharper focus how well the tornado forecast and warning process works and how much improvement is still needed. This was the purpose of our trip last week to the Southern Plains during the height of tornado season. We wanted to observe and document how storm-chasing meteorologists and researchers work to alert the public of impending danger and how they are improving the science of severe weather forecasting.  So, WHNT News 19 photojournalist Shane Hays and I took Storm Hunter 19 to the Wild West.

Why the Southern Plains?

We have plenty of tornadoes here in the South. Some scientists argue it’s actually more probable that you’ll experience a deadly tornado in Dixie Alley.  But, chasing tornadoes here can be difficult due to the mountainous terrain, the winding roads, and a generally hazier atmosphere with lower clouds.  In the Plains, roads are generally in square-mile grids, the land is flat and drier air allows for better visibility — ideal conditions for trained meteorologists to safely track tornadoes.

Here’s a brief chronicle of our experience:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013: The National Weather Center

The National Weather Center is a conglomeration of academic and operational meteorologists located on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.  It’s home to the Storm Prediction Center, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the local National Weather Service office and other institutes. Here, we paid a visit to a group of researchers, who gather every Spring from around the world to put the latest technology and forecasting techniques to the test in a real-world, real-time environment.  The ultimate goal of this is experiment is extending the warning lead-time of impending hazardous weather such as hail, high winds and tornadoes.

Some of the most promising work appears to be from new satellite technology.  Folks from UAH and NASA here in Huntsville are playing a key role in this particular facet of the experiment.  Scientists think lightning activity (see Jennifer Watson’s post for a more in-depth look at how lightning may improve warning times here) and cloud-top cooling rates may allow warnings to occur before severe weather or possibly even before the thunderstorm itself occurs.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013: Chase Day

As a perfect example of how far we need to go in forecasting, the days leading up to our first scheduled chase day were for only a low chance of severe weather.  But, the threat ramped-up Wednesday morning.  So, our caravan made its way to Texas to see what we could find.

After a stop for lunch in Wichita Falls, Texas, it was on to hurry up and wait in the west Texas town of Seymour.  This is the name of the game most of the time when storm chasing.  You pick a target area.  You get there.  And, you wait for storms to form.

The waiting was made pleasant by the company of the crew, a Dairy Queen Blizzard, and a tune on a wooden flute from a fellow chaser.

Soon, it appeared our strategy was correct.  Storms began to form nearby and we were in a perfect position to track them down.  However, enough dry air had filtered into our area that all we saw was virga (rain evaporating before reaching the ground). Meanwhile, a tornado warning was issued for an area near Wichita Falls -- the same place we had stopped for lunch two hours earlier.  It appeared our forecasts were incorrect.

As the day wore on and the atmosphere became more unstable, our forecast, unfortunately, proved accurate in location, but inaccurate with respect to intensity.  The rest of the story, as you know, is several violent tornadoes turned destructive and deadly after dark in central Texas. Here is a story we filed the next day recapping our experience.

Thursday, May 16, 2013: Reed Timmer and KFOR

Our sister station, KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, is one of the most well-known severe weather news outlets around and they have now enlisted the services of Reed Timmer, one of the most well-known stormchasing meteorologists around.

Reed became known for driving armored vehicles into tornadoes on the Discovery Channel.  At first glance, this may seem like some adrenaline junkie's ultimate fix.  But, the Dominators (that’s what he calls his fleet of tornado-resistant vehicles) are equipped with some pretty sophisticated research equipment.  Reed says discovering the elusive inner-workings of a tornado vortex is his passion.  He certainly has the education to back it up.  He has earned both a B.S. and M.S. in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and just needs to complete a research defense to receive a PhD.

He says working with KFOR-TV is a refreshing change of pace that allows him to continue his research while providing an immediate public service through real-time reports of where the tornado is currently located and where it is headed.  During the tornado outbreak of May 19 and 20, Reed, along with the rest of the KFOR-TV storm-tracking team, provided continuous coverage from the field of the devastation as it unfolded.  This reporting undoubtedly saved lives.

Saving lives.  That’s what meteorology at its best is all about.  That’s why my colleagues and I worked to get meteorology degrees and that’s what we all strive for in our careers.

After thousands of miles in Storm Hunter 19, it’s good to be back in the Tennessee Valley; the place I now call home.  You can be assured what we’ve witnessed and learned during the past week will be applied toward our main priority at WHNT News 19: providing you with the best information possible to allow you to protect your family from severe weather.

My trip to the Southern Plains had a very nice side-benefit. I got to meet my nephew, Isaac, for the very first time, and take him for his first golf cart ride with my dad.

My trip to the Southern Plains had a very nice side benefit. I got to meet my nephew, Isaac, for the very first time, and take him for his first golf cart ride with my dad.

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