May 31st, 2013: Tragic Central Oklahoma Outbreak


Date: May 31st, 2013
Location: El Reno, Mustang, & Tuttle, Oklahoma
Event: Violent Supercell & Tornadoes

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I was hesitant to chase this day. I had to pull some strings at work to stay out and blow off a few obligations back in Chicago. The day looked marginal up until 12-18 hours ahead of the event. By morning, a moderate risk was out for much of Central Oklahoma. There was even talk of a potential high risk. Some well-known chasers were also being typical with hype and making statements such as “this could be the costliest and deadliest day in history.” How could you blame them? Just 11 days after an EF-5 tornado destroyed most of Moore, Oklahoma again. The potential was there, but the target area couldn’t haven’t been more obvious. See below:

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To set the stage for the day, an excellent mixture of shear and instability would combine to produce violent supercells across Central Oklahoma. By 4:00 P.M., extreme instability with CAPE values near or above 5,000 J/KG created an explosive environment. Bulk shear greater than 50 knots would promote storm maintenance and organization. The big X-factor for the day would be the progged surface low development near Childress. Supecells were likely all along, but storm mode was unclear due to unfavorable low level directional shear. Veering winds would really hamper any tornado threat had this surface low not developed. As the low strengthened, winds began to back just to the northeast of the low. By peak heating, dew points pooled just to the northeast of the surface low. Basically all the ingredients for violent supercells and tornadoes were pooling in an area just west of the Oklahoma City metro area. Everyone’s target was El Reno and for good reason! Some sample social media excerpts below:

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mcd0907We spent the better part of the day at Ben Holcomb’s place. The target area wasn’t that far away from us so we didn’t feel the need to waste gas and drive around. You could feel the energy in the air. From the explosive atmospheric energy to the nervous human aura. This area was raked for the past two weeks by severe thunderstorms and devastating tornadoes.  By 3:00 P.M., a MD was issued for Central Oklahoma mentioning that a PDS [Particularly Dangerous Situation] tornado watch would be needed soon. Parameters [mentioned above] were pretty well-established and it was only a matter of time before the cap was broken.  Looking outside from Ben’s, a very established area of low level cloud streets were streaming north-northwest. This signals the resurgence of low level moisture and is easily viewed on radar products. By 3:30 P.M., the Storm Prediction Center pulled the trigger on the watch. Watch probabilities were very high and the discussion was equally as daunting.

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...THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION...

  * PRIMARY THREATS INCLUDE...
    SEVERAL INTENSE TORNADOES LIKELY
    NUMEROUS VERY LARGE HAIL EVENTS TO 4 INCHES IN DIAMETER LIKELY
    NUMEROUS DAMAGING WIND GUSTS LIKELY WITH SEVERAL SIGNIFICANT
    GUSTS TO 80 MPH POSSIBLE

  DISCUSSION...AN EXTREMELY UNSTABLE AIR MASS HAS DEVELOPED ACROSS
   MUCH OF CENTRAL/EASTERN OK THIS AFTERNOON.  THIS WILL LIKELY RESULT
   IN RAPID DEVELOPMENT OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS THIS AFTERNOON AND
   EVENING ALONG THE DRYLINE OVER WEST-CENTRAL OK...AND ALONG A WEAK
   BOUNDARY EXTENDING NORTHEASTWARD INTO NORTHEAST OK.  DISCRETE
   SUPERCELLS CAPABLE OF EXTREMELY LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING TORNADOES
   ARE POSSIBLE.  DAMAGING WINDS WILL BECOME AN INCREASING THREAT
   THROUGH THE EVENING.

We switched on over to the local news stations since the Oklahoma City metro is very good with covering severe weather. Almost too good as we will see a little later on…. Surfing through the local media channels, there was already live coverage before any storms even developed! I had never seen that before. A couple channels were even plotting storm tracks on towering cumulus clouds. Chasers out in the field were reporting on cumulus clouds as well. There was definitely a lot of hype surrounding the day.  Just after 4:00 P.M., the hype became realized as a trio of radar echoes developed along the US 281 corridor.

initiationInitiation! We set off from Ben’s apartment as a thunderstorms filled the western horizon. It was pretty surreal being in bright sunshine, but seeing giant storm towers 40 miles to the west. The whole western sky from northwest through southwest was filled with anvils and updrafts. It was as if the army was aligning their troops for the invasion into population. Our chase actually started off pretty doomed. We made a slight calculation error by staying in the OKC metro on a Friday afternoon during rush hour. Even more so there was construction on the bridge connecting I 35 across the Canadian River. These relatively infant storms were already severe warned as we struggled to get to Highway 9 in Norman.

201305312233zBy 5:30, several supercells had developed from North-Central Oklahoma south into the western Oklahoma City metro. The NWS was watching two storms in particular. The first one was to the north near Hennessey, while the second was east of Hinton. Storms went up in a pretty large cluster, but the a few dominant updrafts were expected to take over and provide the best chance for damaging tornadoes. We neared Bridge Creek as the sky was filled with intense positive lightning strikes. This was noteworthy considering we were still over 20 miles from the precipitation center.  A few minutes later, spotters started to report a wall cloud with the Hinton storm. We were still a little too far away to view any discernible features, but we were on the right track.

It was at this time that a fatal navigation error made by another chaser in Ben’s ride probably saved a near fatal experience for us. Adam and I usually aren’t the “follow the leader” type. We did, however, follow Ben because he lives in the area and has a good idea of the back roads. When we reached Union City, we thought our plan was to head north along US 81 toward El Reno and intercept the storm as it crossed 81. What we did though was turn west on 152. Adam and I couldn’t figure out this move, but we trusted our predecessors and figured it was some sort of short cut. At this time I snapped a few pics of the storm below:

IMG_4395 IMG_4400 IMG_4402 IMG_4412Tornado warnings were issued for the area and anticipation mounted. The storm itself was very menacing looking! PWAT values were greater than 1.5 and it wasn’t hard to notice that as the core of this storm was a deep blue, green color. Lightning exploded at a downright scary rate as we progressed deeper into the storm’s grasp. Our shortcut found us on a windy, gravel road as we approached the river again. We had intermittent views of the storm, but couldn’t really pick out anything interesting. We saw a lowering off to our northwest, but it looked rather unorganized. We found a river crossing and hit Reno Road as the updraft area of the storm was now just northeast of us. We had fallen behind the storm thanks to the river and our westward turn. We had fallen into a data hole, so our observations would be strictly visual. We traveled east on Reno Road as traffic flew back west blinking their lights at us. SOMETHING was brewing.

IMG_4404I thought I made out a white cone tornado a few miles to the east before we were swallowed by the RFD. I couldn’t confirm it, so we pressed on for a closer look. We proceeded to Courtney Road just after 6:00 P.M. Winds were howling out of the north and visibility dropped. Ben slowly pressed on with Adam and I to follow. Traffic from the east had stopped so we were the only ones brave enough to hook slice this supercell. We hit Heaston Road and Adam and I started to smell this really foul odor of natural gas. An audible howl/roar was heard at this time and I commented “I think we are in a pretty bad spot!” Adam agreed and I think Ben subconsciously heard it as he slammed on his brakes and turned around. We retreated out of the bear’s cage and met on the side of the road where we both said “NOPE!”  *Upon further review of video and radar data, it was determined that we drove into the outer circulation of the now violent tornado; it passed just 1 mile to our east and grew to a width of 2.6 miles wide*

936211_182015898624918_449410480_n 181267_182015938624914_1754482935_n 8466_182015948624913_2130036858_n 936151_182015965291578_1374023581_nIt was at this time that several chasers were hit by this tornado. A very powerful beast, this tornado developed rapidly and deviated from the storm’s east/northeast motion. It accelerated southeast and caught numerous chasers off guard. You can search any Youtube video out there from the event. Thinking back to our navigational error, I have some reflections. Our chase style is typically aggressive in nature. We probably would have been one of those chasers that were right up in the bear’s cage and likely impacted by the tornado. As fate or luck would have it, that error likely saved us from impending doom.

To get back on track, we bailed back to 152 and caught glimpses of what we thought was the t0rnado to our northeast. As we hit US 81, the storm was well off to our northeast and the road toward El Reno was blocked off by police. We thought we would get ahead of the storm and head east toward Mustang. The storm looked to be along the I-40 corridor. We figured if we got out ahead of the storm we’d have a clear view into the notch as it entered western Oklahoma City. The supercell was in a transitional phase. The tornado occluded and the storm itself morphed into a cluster of supercells centered on I-40. We headed into Mustang just as destructive winds slammed into the town from the north. The RFD was wrapping around a newly developed tornado near the Will Rogers Airport. It was eerie driving through town as winds howled, shingles flew off roofs, and power poles snapped. Our data wasn’t working so we turned to local radio. Wall to wall coverage of the situation at hand. We headed south on Highway 4 until we hit the river bridge…. that’s when perhaps the scariest and most frustrating moment of my chasing career occurred. *Photographer unknown*

992899_10101470995694727_1357264746_nYou are definitely not seeing things. 4 lanes of traffic + 2 lanes feeding onto SR4. All of these people were evacuating south out of the storm’s path. We couldn’t figure it out! We crawled south for 30 minutes and only made it to the end of the bridge. Being stuck in traffic is frustrating enough on a good day! The local media personalities were telling people to evacuate south out of town and effectively helped clog the roads. This advice actually harmed people even further. The overall storm motion this day was east to east/northeast. Any weather savvy person, however, knows that supercells generally want to deviate and turn right. So telling everyone to flee in the middle of a metro area with violent weather just to the north is a recipe for disaster since these storms in fact deviated and started heading toward the southeast.  At this time we had a tornado to our northeast and another strong couplet to our northwest. With traffic moving at 5-10 MPH, we were sitting ducks now stranded on the Canadian River bridge. Visually I could observe this large wall cloud out my window to the northwest, at any moment a big tornado could set down and end the lives of hundreds of people. We creeped onto the opposite side of the bridge and then bolted along the shoulder for the nearest west road. Our plan was to get off the main roads and head toward the storm since everyone was heading away from it. We made it to our road and only had to deal with a couple of people. We wanted to head south a few miles to 152 and then blast west to Tuttle and Minco where we would reevaluate the situation. Traffic was packed again at 152, but we were able to turn west after a couple of minutes. It was at this point where our worst fears became realized. The aforementioned circulation to our northwest had rapidly lowered to the ground. I commented to Adam that those clouds were moving really fast and before I could finish my sentence a big vorticy slammed to the ground. A tornado was developing just 2 miles to our northwest.  Since storm motion was to the southeast, we floored it and tried to get west so the circulation would pass behind us.  The tornado churned in the field northwest of us and didn’t appear to be moving from left to right as we anticipated. It just got bigger. The first rule of chasing is knowing the direction of the tornado… if it isn’t moving side to side and is getting bigger it means it’s heading right for you. We were in big trouble. *Watch terrifying video below*

After our narrow escape, the three of us had enough. We bailed west to Minco just as another circulation was developing west of town. Not taking any chances we floored it south on US281 and planned to head to Chickasha. Traffic had other ideas and we finally blasted west to Anadarko and waited for the severe weather to exit the area. During the experience, our phones kept blowing up with people very concerned about us because some chasers had been hit and it was plastered all over social media. One storm spotter even rolled his vehicle into a flooded creek and nearly died. This was this spotters 2nd close encounter in that general area with a near death experience. This is why it is very important to utilize proper training and common sense. We limped back through the damage path after dark as a horrific flooding situation was taking place across the metro. The supercells transitioned from a tornado threat to a heavy rain threat and produced several inches of rain. Our drive up I-44 looked extremely bleak with several hours of heavy rain producing thunderstorms. We wondered if we would even get home or would the roads be flooded out. We made it a good 7 hours before we realized a big problem… *shown below*

226653_180325442127297_1628804526_nWhile driving through the damage, we encountered a flat tire in rural Missouri. Luckily Adam had a spare so it was only a minor setback. We limped home and I was back in my house by noon. I tried to take a short nap before work, but I was too tired to sleep. I sucked it up and went to work that day and returned back to my house by midnight. It had been well over 36 hours since I last slept and I was overdo for a fatigue induced coma. Just as I crawled into bed, my phone started blowing up asking if I had heard the news. That if it was true? I was out of the loop so I had to find out what they were talking about…. Apparently three storm chasers had been killed by the tornado that we bailed from near El Reno. Not just any three chasers though. 2 powerhouse, famous names in our community and another up and coming chaser/photographer.

Over the years, there’s been some nasty rumors after a tornado where people see a Spotter Network icon very near the tornado and assume the worst. In this case, though, these chaser’s were not using Spotter Network publicly. For the next several hours there was a lot speculation, rumors, and facts being whirled around social media. It wasn’t until the next morning that it was confirmed. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and researcher Carl Young were impacted and instantly killed by this tornado. The impact of that alone is staggering from a chaser level. No storm chaser had ever died by a direct impact from a tornado before. The community was reeling, but it hit at a much deeper level for some of us. While I can’t say I was best friends about any of the individuals that are deceased, I did have casual conversations with Tim on Stormtrack as well as Paul on Facebook. In fact, Adam and I had talked with Paul and Carl a few days earlier at a local Walmart. Human impact aside, losing a few of the most recognized and respected chasers to an event like that really makes you think about what you’re doing out there. While not the safest chasers out there, they certainly had the talent and ability to put themselves in the best position to get their research. The tornado of May 31st was just so different and epic in proportions that even the best were taken by surprise. The chasing community will never forget May 31st, 2013.

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Stats:

Winds: 80 MPH

Hail: .50″

Tornadoes: 2

Miles Driven: 1,200

 

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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