May 20th, 2013: Devastating Moore, Oklahoma EF-5


Date: May 20th, 2013

Location: Moore, Oklahoma

Event: Supercells & Violent EF-5 

Summary: 

A day that will forever live in memory. Started the morning in Ponca City after another successful chase yesterday. Our plan was to head south into the Oklahoma City metro area as a base location until things became clearer. We met up at Ben Holcomb’s place with several other chasers just after noon and monitored mesoanalysis. Things were primed across Central and Southern Oklahoma. The higher probabilities were to the south, but we still hung around the metro as we saw a very faint boundary laying across the southern metro. We got baited down to Purcell as supercells developed and started moving into the area. One storm in particular looked like an atomic bomb going off and quickly stopped us dead in our tracks as we made it to Purcell. Upon further analysis this storm could not be ignored so we turned around and went after it. We met up with in Newcastle just as it began to produce a violent tornado. Over the next hour the town of Moore would be hit with their 2 EF5 in 15 years and 5th overall tornado. We watched in horror as this tornado chewed through town. We dipped south and intercepted another storm that produced a weak tornado near Stratford. We returned north to Shawnee where we stayed the night with other chasers who were in shock at what just unfolded.

Full Account:

I woke up around 10 A.M. after staying up way later than I should have. Thunderstorms kept developing overnight across Northern Oklahoma and I was overdosing on the idea to shoot some more lightning pictures given the display Mother Nature put on yesterday evening. Another moderate risk was issued for Central and Southern Oklahoma. Risk for some tornadoes, but mostly a large hail threat with any supercell. Hi-res guidance and wind profiles were not advertising a big tornado outbreak, but a few strong ones would be possible. We gassed up in Ponca City and headed south toward Ben Holcomb’s house in Norman. We made it down into the OKC area by 12:30.

On the trip down, I started getting this awkward feeling. It was almost like really bad anxiety. It doesn’t quite make sense to me, but I felt like something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know what that feeling was or why it was there. It was a nervous energy that I haven’t felt very often while chasing. I had chased hundreds of storms before and never felt nervous (except for my very first chases.) Going back to my first chase log (here) I was terrified of storms and was anxious any time one would be predicted. Those same feelings started flooding back to me as we neared the Oklahoma City area. It wasn’t a high risk or a day where an outbreak was likely, it just didn’t feel right.

19_ehi3 19_srh3 19_shr6 19_lllr 19_mlcp 19_sbcp 19_500mb 19_ttd Meteorologically speaking, it was a fairly typical severe weather day for Spring in Oklahoma. A stationary boundary was draped from west southwest to east northeast up the I 44 corridor. A dry line was progged to develop and intensify as it mixed east to near the I 35 corridor. A triple point was also forecast to develop near or just west of the Oklahoma City metro area. Very warm moist air was in place across Central Oklahoma with a series of disturbances ejecting out of the Southern Plains. Low level shear was a little bit lacking, but that would be overcome with the presence of boundaries. 0-6 KM shear of 50-60 kts more than supported supercells to form. As we got to Ben’s house a mesoscale discussion was issued (below) stating the risk for some tornadoes and the possibility of a watch.

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Ben and I were looking over the special balloon launch sounding and one of the close matches was the May 20th, 1957. This is when a violent F5 tornado plowed right through the Kansas City suburb of Ruskin Heights. Ben and I both looked at each other and chuckled “Heh, yeah right.” By now it was just after 1 P.M. and the first few storms started to fire near Lawton. Once the first echo intensified, the Storm Prediction Center pulled the trigger on a tornado watch (below).

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Upon closer look of the special sounding and satellite, we noted a very subtle boundary laying east-west across the metro area. Low level directional shear was pretty dramatic near this subtle boundary. Ben and I both noticed this and went “hmmm.” By now the tornado watch had been blasted all over social and local media. The Oklahoma City area does not take severe weather potential lightly. The NWS in Norman also put out a strongly worded Hazardous Weather Outlook at this time:

TIMING...
ALTHOUGH SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WILL BE POSSIBLE FROM 1 PM THROUGH 
MIDNIGHT...THE PEAK HOURS FOR SEVERE WEATHER...INCLUDING TORNADOES...
WILL BE BETWEEN 3 PM AND 8 PM THIS AFTERNOON AND EVENING.

IMPACTS...
TORNADOES...POTENTIALLY STRONG WITH LONG TRACKS...ALONG WITH BASEBALL 
SIZED HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS ARE LIKELY WITH THE STRONGEST STORMS 
WITHIN THE MODERATE RISK AREA. PING PONG BALL SIZED HAIL AND WINDS TO 
ABOUT 60 MPH ARE EXPECTED WITH THE STRONGER STORMS WITHIN THE SLIGHT 
RISK AREA.

RECOMMENDED ACTIONS...
STORM SPOTTER GROUPS AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PERSONNEL ACROSS THE 
RISK AREAS SHOULD PLAN FOR SEVERE WEATHER OPERATIONS FROM 1 PM UNTIL 
MIDNIGHT.

DISCUSSION...
THE WEATHER SITUATION TODAY VERY MUCH RESEMBLES YESTERDAY. WARM...
UNSTABLE AIR WILL AGAIN LIE EAST OF A COLD FRONT/DRYLINE COMBINATION
THAT WILL BE OVER WESTERN AND CENTRAL OKLAHOMA...AND WESTERN NORTH 
TEXAS. VERTICAL WIND PROFILES WILL AGAIN SUPPORT ROTATING UPDRAFTS
AND SUPERCELL THUNDERSTORMS...ESPECIALLY IN THE MODERATE RISK AREA.
A SLIGHTLY WEAKER CAPPING INVERSION IS INDICATED...WHICH SUGGESTS
A SLIGHTLY EARLIER BEGINNING OF STORM DEVELOPMENT...COMPARED TO
YESTERDAY. STORMS ARE EXPECTED TO BE FAIRLY SPARSE EARLY IN THE
EVENT...THEN MERGE INTO SMALL CLUSTERS DURING THE EVENING.

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Things started to happen fairly quick here. Echo tops on the storms to the southwest were rapidly growing and moving into an environment increasingly favorable for supercells. A few chasers at Ben’s started to get antsy and took off south after the storms. We plotted their course and figured they’d end up around Pauls Valley near 3 P.M. We held off a little longer. The northern most storm near Chickasha started to weaken while the ones further south near Duncan intensified. At 2:00 P.M. OUN pulled the trigger on a pair of severe thunderstorm warnings (below).

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Alright, it was go time. Adam, Joe, and I took off south from Norman and gassed up near Riverwind Casino. The time was 2:10 P.M. A new storm started to develop to our west over Bridge Creek. It immediately went severe warned for damaging winds to 60 MPH (below). We didn’t necessarily pay attention to those storms as closely as we should have. We were focused on the supercell near Rush Springs as it was headed in Purcell’s general direction. We wrote off the Blanchard/Bridge Creek storm because we figured the inflow would be cut off by our storm to the south.

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We fueled up and made the short drive down to Purcell. At 2:25 P.M. I happened to look over my right shoulder out the window and my jaw hit the floor. The most atomic bomb looking structure I had seen since June 7th, 2009 in Oregon, Missouri. This is where we almost made a noob mistake that would have cost us the day. I pointed out the cell to our northwest and the low level circulation that appeared to be developing on the TDWR. It caught Adam’s attention as well so we pulled off in Purcell to decide what we wanted to do. If we continued south, we would have completely written off the first storm which probably would have led to a night of heavy drinking. Radar and a quick picture of the storm is provided below.

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mcd0728 The Storm Prediction Center issued another meso-scale discussion mentioning the tornado threat increasing in vicinity of the triple point and then further up the stationary boundary. We cut west to the Dibble area just as our storm was upon us. It was just after 2:30 P.M. and our target storm was not doing so well. The core dropped in intensity, there were no more hail reports being received out of it, and no low level rotation. We really had a decision to make at this point. The storm to the north was looking really good to me. It had the classic “three cell alignment” that I feast over. Any time storms develop in that explosive environment and they develop in threes, I always target that southern most storm. It was developing great low level rotation, but remained unwarned. (Our position below.)

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Joe and I didn’t want to go south. I don’t think Adam did either, but if we made the decision to blast north we’d be putting ourselves out of position for anything to the south and ran the risk of encountering metro traffic which would hamper our efforts. Using the TDWR was invaluable. Every minute it updated, the low level structure became more impressive than the last. I think seeing this finally convinced everyone that we NEEDED to get north as quick as we could. We took off toward Blanchard up State Route 76. At 2:40 P.M. Norman issued a tornado warning for Newcastle, Moore, and southern Oklahoma City. They also issued one for the storm to our south, but that one looked far less impressive. We were plenty satisfied with our choice to head north.

moore5Rotating wall clouds were being reported on both storms now. TDWR looked amazing. We were only 12 miles south of the storm and detoured around Blanchard. It was becoming clear that a tornado was imminent, but we were just far enough away from the cell that we couldn’t see it. At 2:50 P.M. we were just south of Newcastle at the H.E Bailey Spur. We could see a giant updraft ahead of us, but it was too hazy to see the base. Funnel cloud reports started coming in as we pressed on toward town. It was about to show time. At the current time it had not occurred to me what was happening or where it was happening. (below)

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Joe had the live feed from a local news station up and we watched as a slender cone shaped funnel descended from the cloud base. We were about 6 miles south of it and couldn’t see the horizon now due to the trees and buildings of Newcastle. We listened intently as the helicopter reported the circulation touching the ground and debris starting to be picked up. Here we go! As we got into the center of Newcastle, police flew by us just as a large wall cloud came into view to the north. We knew exactly where they were going and what they were going to. Block the road. We came up to SR 130 where we went east off the main highway. The river was two miles east of us, but Portland Ave extended north to near the I-44 exit. We thought we would get a better view that way, avoid the roadblock, and not get caught in traffic. Our position shown below at 3:01 P.M.

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Joe was giving us a play by play as we went east on Fox Lane. This was a heavily residential area and our view was blocked by homes and trees. The last we heard there was a fairly sizable cone tornado just north of Newcastle. The radar presentation was intense. Gate to gate shear was highly indicative of a powerful tornado in progress. Again, it still didn’t register to me what was happening or where it was heading. We had a one tracked mind and it was to get into position to see it. Our phones went off in unison of a tornado warning. Upon reading the text, we knew how dangerous the situation had truly become. Tornado Emergency for Southern Oklahoma City. Our position below at 3:05 P.M.

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moore9By now a very pronounced debris ball was apparent on base reflectivity. We turned north on Portland Avenue and saw the giant meso hovering over a random hill. Was Mother Nature really going to keep us from seeing this tornado? Every single time we think we will get a view, something happens. If it’s not police road block, it’s buildings and trees, and now a random hill. Spotter network reports were coming in of a large tornado, but that could mean anything. Tornado size is so subjective to the person and many times a slender cone is reported as large. Piecing together the clues, however, we knew something significant was probably occurring. We just couldn’t get in position to see it. I jokingly said we should pull over and run up the hill to try to get a better view, but Adam pressed on past a grove of trees. That’s when everything came together in my head. It finally dawned on me what was happening and where it was going.

tor

“Oh my God, that’s going to nail the metro!” Those were the first words out of my mouth. I was in shock.

moore10

We stopped right as the road curved at the river. The time was 3:08 P.M. and a mile wide wedge was crossing less than a mile in front of us. It all hit me at once. This was going for Moore. Of all places for it to hit it had to be Moore. What gave me an even more eerie feeling was that it was following almost the exact same path as another famous Moore tornado. On May 3rd, 1999, a violent F5 tornado developed near Amber and traveled northeast along the I-44 corridor through Newcastle, Moore, and Oklahoma City. It was such an infamous tornado that residents and meteorologists alike only reference it by date. Everyone that lived in the area knows what “May 3rd” means. I couldn’t believe it and still had hopes that it would somehow miss the metro altogether. A tornado of that size and power doesn’t just disappear.

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From our position, the rear flank downdraft wrapped around the tornado and obscured it. We never saw the tornado again. What we did experience though will send chills and still gives me goosebumps. I can tell you the exact minute this tornado plowed into Moore. From the time the tornado passed across the northern sky a waterfall sounds was present. Pretty typical sound from a tornado in the open land. At 3:10 P.M. that whooshing sound changed into an audible ROAR. This was a sickening roar. It didn’t sound like jets or a freight train to me, it sounded like a giant bulldozer scraping asphalt off the ground. Louder and louder the roar grew even as the tornado moved further away. All this told me was that it was now in Moore and something catastrophic was happening. I began to worry about my friends now. I have several friends that live in Moore, most of them are chasers. I worried about their families and their homes. We watched there for the next five minutes as the roar began to lessen. We were in shock.

moore12A sickening debris ball was plowing right through downtown Moore. We wanted to go up I-44, but knew that would be impossible. We were trapped on the wrong side of the river. I wanted to go to Moore and help. I didn’t care about chasing anymore, but there was no easy way to get there. We had to backtrack through Newcastle and down to Highway 9. I turned on the radio as it was simulcasting the live television play by play of the tornado. As we made it to Highway 9, the tornado was approaching I-35. From all accounts the tornado was still going strong. Reports of a large tornado at 4th Street and I-35, then 4th Street and Bryant, and 4th Street and Sunnylane. It was plowing right through central Moore. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was 3:20 P.M. on a Monday. As we were passing through Newcastle I saw a yellow vehicle that sent chills up and down my spine. School bus. School. Violent tornado. Dismissal. Children.

At 3:30 we made it to I-35, but noticed no one was going anywhere. You couldn’t get north if you tried. We saw Ben submit a spotter network report: Tor — — Spotter is 4 miles E of MOORE, OK ( county) [35.329/-97.424] — Big cone shaped tornado about to cross sooner and SE 134th. We crawled up to Highway 9 in Norman and went east. There was nothing we could do to get to Moore, we decided to try to blast east to get out ahead of the storm again in case it was still ongoing east of Lake Stanley Draper. By now the tornado had begun to weaken and we actually listened live on air as it dissipated on the western bank of the lake. Traffic in the metro was horrible. Nothing we didn’t expect though. We finally maneuvered our way around Norman and went north on a road just outside of Pink. By now our storm was north of I 40 and had dramatically weakened. We debated on what to do. Emergency vehicles, utility trucks, and other vehicles were flying east toward the tornado stricken area. We didn’t want to interfere so we headed east to Shawnee. Another supercell was strengthening 50 miles to the southwest and headed for Stratford.

moore13

We blasted south out of Shawnee. It was 31 miles south to Stratford. The tornado was 34 miles west of Stratford and moving east at 20 MPH. We knew the environment of this day and just witnessed a historic tornado. This storm would be treated the exact same way. We stepped it up a notch and wanted to beat the core to US 177. We barely beat the core to the highway and now had a slight visual of the updraft base at 4:50 P.M. Our position and radar image is below.

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We made it into Stratford as the updraft area was still 7-10 miles to our west. This area of Oklahoma wasn’t so chaser friendly in terms of terrain. Trees and hills peppered the land, but we were able to find a flat spot just north of town. The storm was headed in our general direction so we waited for it to come. A well defined wall cloud with alligator mouth appeared to the west. A confirmed tornado was reported at this time, but initially we couldn’t see it. Photo below.

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We started to notice some rapid motion on the left side of the wall cloud. I zoomed my camera in and saw a funnel dangling down. Another tornado was in progress, but quickly dissipated. Photo of the tornado below.

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We watched for several more minutes as the tornado dissipated. The storm was on it’s way out as well. It quickly weakened and dissipated. We met up with other chasers on the side of the road and all caravanned back into Shawnee to a local Applebees. On the way a sobering LSR was released from Norman: Local Storm Report by NWS OUN: Newcastle [Mcclain Co, OK] broadcast media reports TORNADO at 02:56 PM CDT — lifted around 336 pm. estimated path length of 20 miles thru newcastle, moore, and south okc. preliminary damage rating of at least ef4. I looked on social media and saw some pictures of the damage. I had no doubt it was an EF-5. There appeared to be entire neighborhoods flattened and it looked like a school with very heavy damage. No word on a death toll, but I knew there were deaths. We made it into Shawnee just as another supercell blew up over Oklahoma City. We briefly debated going after it, but decided against it. It was headed in the general direction so if something were to happen we’d be position already. We met up with some good friends at the Applebees and discussed the event. Instead of the usual celebration of seeing a tornado, we were all in awe at the aerial footage of Moore. They were focused on an elementary school where there were reported children trapped. We ate and then decided our next move. It was a long drive back to Chicago, so we decided to stay in Shawnee the night and get a good nights rest. Throughout the night the death toll continued to rise. From 12 to 25 all the way up 92. We thought this tornado would claim more lives than the Joplin one a few years prior. Thankfully there was a huge discrepancy and that 92 figure was erroneous. Unfortunately 24 people did die including 7 children at Plaza Towers Elementary School. A terrible day and a tornado that I will never forget. I knew I had a bad feeling about the day, I felt something bad was going to happen, but I never would have guessed another EF-5 would hit Moore.

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tor tracks

Green – May 20th, 2013 – EF-5

Red – May 3rd, 1999 – F5

Blue – May 8th, 2003 – F4

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About Danny Neal

Danny is a storm chaser from the southside of Chicago and has been chasing since 1998. He has over 100 tornadoes documented as well as numerous other extreme weather events. He routinely teaches and trains others about severe and unusual weather and is considered a great resource for Northern Illinois. As a partner with NOAA, he spends most of his time assisting the National Weather Service Chicago during severe weather operations