Where The Wicked Winds Blow: The El Reno Tornado

The Aries is a peculiar animal. I should know; I am one. Challenge-seeking and adrenaline rush-loving, we Rams enjoy few things more than, when told something isn’t possible or that some goal is unattainable, setting out with enormous energy to prove you wrong. The quickest way to spur me into action is to tell me I can’t do something. Oh yeah? Hide ‘n watch while I forge ahead with unrelenting determination to make you eat those words. Speaking as an Aries female, I feel an overwhelming drive to be numero uno at anything and everything I undertake. Well-versed in the art of one-upsmanship, an Arien never settles for being second best…at anything or to anyone.

Ram that I am, I find adrenaline rushes and extreme adventure quite seductive. One way I discovered, years ago, that I could indulge my craving for both was through storm chasing.

Birth of a Tornadic Supercell, near El Reno, OK, May 31, 2013

Birth of a Tornadic Supercell, near El Reno, OK, May 31, 2013

I was born and raised in the very heart of Tornado Alley: Oklahoma City. I lived in the Oklahoma City area until 2003 when I relocated 160 miles north to a suburb of Wichita, Kansas. Both areas are no stranger to severe thunderstorms and tornadoes; they are simply a fact of life in these parts. As a small child, I was terrified of storms. Some of my earliest memories involve a hypervigilant, overreactive Taurus mother whisking me out of bed as a violent thunderstorm raged outside, driving us in a panic to my grandmother’s house a few miles away to seek shelter in her basement. More or less, I learned by example to be afraid of storms. But as I grew older, I gradually became a little less frightened and a little more fascinated by nature’s fury. Somehow, I came to the realization at a relatively young age that things were much less scary when the bright light of knowledge and understanding was shone upon them. By educating myself on the science of thunderstorms and tornadoes, I was illuminating my fear with a virtual spotlight. No longer was I afraid; on the contrary, I quickly grew to love extreme weather and thunderstorms, and I was genuinely interested in and intrigued by what makes tornadoes tick.

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Reed Timmer

The notion of storm chasing first came to my attention on May 3, 1999 when an F-5 tornado tore through an area on the southern outskirts of Oklahoma City, leaving 44 people dead and billions of dollars in damage in its aftermath. Mouth agape, I watched the live coverage in both awe and horror as this beast roared closer and closer. In my 27 years of living in a city that regularly sees tornadoes each spring, I had never before seen a tornado of that magnitude anywhere near me. Sitting in my living room with my three offspring and my then-hubby, a Cancer who hailed from the northern West Virginia panhandle and was completely unaccustomed to experiencing storms that could kill a person if they weren’t below ground, we watched on live TV as the mile-wide monster barreled in our general direction. I marveled at the storm chasers (including a 19 year-old OU meteorology student by the name of Reed “BACKUP!!!!!” Timmer) as they streamed live coverage from out in the field, and I became acutely aware that they were probably safer than my family and I were, parked at home, practically waiting to be taken out by this killer tornado. Horrified, yet mesmerized as I watched it churn along, destroying everything in its path, I decided I would love nothing more than to be out in the field with those guys.

Beginning in the spring of 2001, I started dabbling in what might be considered amateur quasi-storm chasing. Bear in mind, if you will, at that time I lived in Oklahoma City so my “chases” usually consisted of local severe thunderstorms, of which we never lack. Having no mobile radar and nothing whatsoever to go on visually, I was flying blind –almost– as I drove in the storm’s general direction with my only guidance being in the form of a radio simulcast of a local TV meteorologist giving a play by play of Doppler radar-indicated rotation along with spotter information. In the years that followed, I managed to capture hundreds of photographs of beautiful storm structures and massive supercells, with the occasional funnel cloud. However, I’ve always stopped short of officially labeling myself a “storm chaser,” as Real Life often prevents me from chasing anything. After all, Ma Nature doesn’t really care if you have to work or don’t have the extra gas money to chase on the day she decides to drop a tornado. I would, and still do, consider myself more of a severe weather enthusiast and, because of not always being in a position to actively chase, be it due to lack of funds, the target area being too far away, work or other schedule/timing conflict, the chasing I do manage to get under my belt would still qualify as amateur, although I’ve been at it for 12 years, have access to mobile radar via my laptop, and am moderately knowledgeable in the science itself.

During the afternoon and evening of Thursday, May 30, 2013 I embarked on an impromptu chase when a dear Aquarian chaser friend and his Aries girlfriend shot me a text saying they would be coming down from Kansas thru Oklahoma City within a few hours to hopefully position themselves further south in order to intercept a tornado. A typical spring day in Oklahoma, we had already seen quite a few supercells go on to spawn tornadoes that afternoon and my Water Bearer buddy was hell-bent on bagging a tornado. He invited me to join them in their quest, which I excitedly did. While not a complete bust, we didn’t intercept anything significant, although we did manage to catch a few short-lived tornadoes and capture some jaw-dropping video and storm images.

Supercell w/rotating wall cloud W of Turner Falls, Davis, OK 05/30/2013

Supercell w/rotating wall cloud W of Turner Falls, Davis, OK 05/30/2013

As the evening began winding down, we headed back north toward Oklahoma City, discussing what the next day might bring in terms of severe weather. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) was forecasting a pretty significant risk for severe weather which could possibly culminate in large, violent, long-track tornadoes. It appeared all hell was going to break loose very near my home in Yukon, a western suburb of Oklahoma City. After running it by my Cancer-cusp better half, who anxiously awaited me at home, we invited my friends to spend the night at our house; that way, instead of driving another three and a half hours back up to their home in southwestern Kansas, and then back again the following day another three and a half hours to chase, they could get some well-needed rest and wake up in the target area. They gratefully accepted.

Friday, May 31, 2013, 12:30pm: we must have been more exhausted than we realized to wake up at lunchtime! Over a late breakfast, we studied the latest projections from the SPC convective outlooks, and we easily chose our initial target area: El Reno, Oklahoma, just 10 miles west of Yukon. CAPE (convective available potential energy) values were predicted to reach over 5,000 (meaning an extremely unstable atmosphere) and while we didn’t know exactly how things were going to go down, we knew they were going to go down…and whatever went down would be huge. Scores of storm chasers from all over the country and every genre — amateurs, thrill-seekers, researchers, news crews — had descended upon this same target area. At 3:30pm, a PDS (particularly dangerous situation) tornado watch was issued by the SPC, indicating that any tornadoes that developed could be long-track, destructive ones. PDS tornado watches aren’t issued very often so when they are, it’s imperative to pay close attention to the weather.

We arrived in El Reno early in the 4:00 hour, stopping at Braum’s to grab some ice cream while we kept a constant watch on both radar and the deceptively calm, gorgeous azure sky. Within less than half an hour, we watched as evidence of storm initiation began and breathtaking cumulonimbi rapidly climbed higher and higher into the atmosphere, like the lid being removed from a pot of boiling water; the clouds themselves seemed to be boiling as they ascended explosively. When the action began to be detectable on radar, my Aquarian amigo announced, “Time to move.” We had three rapidly developing supercells to choose from and our fearless Water Bearing leader ultimately made the decision to pursue one to our WSW. The adrenaline level in the car was skyrocketing in tandem with the storm development as we raced in anticipation toward the southwest to get front-row seats to what, quite possibly, could become a significant, perhaps even historic and (heaven forbid) deadly severe weather event.

We couldn’t have been more right.

timsamarasStorms now initiating south of Watonga along triple point. Dangerous day ahead for OK–stay weather savvy!”  ~ Tim Samaras, in his final post on Twitter, shortly before his death, 05/31/2013

Within a half hour, after some tricky navigation thru blinding rain, fierce winds, and baseball-size hail, we caught up to the monster on a rural, gravel county road, and watched incredulously as we witnessed the birth of a killer, not more than one hundred yards away in an adjacent field to our southeast. Three separate vortices danced around one another in a deadly waltz, intertwining gracefully before ultimately coming together to form a single, massive, dark gray wedge, swirling dirt up, into, and around the vortex. It was eerily quiet, with the exception of the sound of a distant, whistling wind which was so soft, it almost seemed as if it could’ve been harmless. As the tornado slowly churned further east and then northeast thru the countryside, we followed closely behind, documenting its progression with our video cameras, stopping our pursuit when we began encountering unfortunate homes which had been left heavily damaged or destroyed in the twister’s wake.

While his girlfriend and I filmed the extensive destruction, my Water Bearer buddy frantically raced up driveways, almost as if playing hopscotch as he jumped to avoid downed power lines and debris, made his way through enormous piles of rubble which families once called home, climbing over piles of bricks, around walls that no longer stood, tossing furniture aside, calling out, trying desperately to find anyone who might be trapped beneath the remains. Fortunately, there was only one home where he did find someone: a mother and daughter who had ridden out the storm in an underground shelter and were very much alive and uninjured. While searching the debris of another home about a half mile away, the elderly homeowner arrived on the scene via a sheriff’s deputy. He assured us there had been no one at home when the tornado leveled his house, and he expressed his gratitude that we had stopped and searched. I asked him if it was his house.

Heavy damage in the front yard of the first house we searched minutes after the tornado hit

Heavy damage in the front yard of the first house we searched minutes after the tornado hit

“Yeah, it’s…well, it used to be my house,” the silver-haired gentleman chuckled as he stood at the foot of the driveway, taking in the devastation. “But that’s okay. We’re alive.”

I wonder if he was an Aries. We Rams are known for our unrelenting optimism…

A mother & daughter were found safe in their home's storm shelter, S of El Reno, OK, 05/31/2013. Shortly after this picture was taken, the south side of the home began to collapse; however, no one was injured.

A mother & daughter were found safe in their home’s storm shelter, S of El Reno, OK, 05/31/2013. Shortly after this picture was taken, the south side of the home began to collapse; however, no one was injured.

The tornado continued to plow toward the northeast as we went house to house searching for potential victims. Over the car’s radio, I heard a local meteorologist urgently announce that the next projected target on the tornado’s radar was none other than my own city of Yukon. A tornado emergency was declared, as it had left major damage in its wake and was estimated to be around a mile wide as it bore down on a densely populated area. If this beast continued on its current path, it was possible, if not probable, that a large portion of the city would be wiped away…taking my home with it.

Fortunately, the tornado dissipated before that could happen, leaving Yukon –along with my own home– virtually untouched, save for a few tree limbs in the streets and sporadic power outages as a result of high winds.

By the time the tornado dissipated into the clouds as if it had never existed at all, it had enjoyed a life span of 40 minutes, produced winds of a nearly-unprecedented 296 mph across what has since been estimated to be a damage path 2.6 miles wide and 16.2 miles long, claiming at least twenty lives  (as of the date & time of this publication) including those of seven infants or children, and three veteran storm chasers who were not daredevils or thrill-seekers but seasoned meteorologists; scientists whose mission that fateful day was to place probes into the tornado’s path in order to glean data which would serve –and has previously served– to help unravel the mystery behind tornadoes, ultimately increasing warning times and saving countless lives.

Remembering Team TWISTEX: Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, Carl Young, 05/31/2013, El Reno, Oklahoma

Remembering Team TWISTEX: Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, Carl Young, 05/31/2013, El Reno, Oklahoma

Mother Nature’s cryptic message on May 31st was, that at the end of the day, she is the one who is in charge. The mere fact that the tornado’s unpredictable movement was able to surprise three extensively experienced storm chasers/scientists only underscores the desperate need for the very research they were attempting to do that day, and to remind us just how much we still don’t know about severe weather and meteorology in general.

The tragic fate met by those three men could have just as easily been met by any one of us who were chasing that tornado. This realization is quite humbling to say the least, and certainly gives me pause.

So will I continue to chase? Absolutely. Storms are one of my greatest passions. Although my Aquarius – Aries chase buddies, nor I, are scientists by any stretch of the imagination, we still make a difference, whether it’s by calling in storm reports to the NWS or being in a right place/right time situation that allows us, in many instances almost immediately after a tornado has struck, to search damaged structures for possible victims in need of help.

Besides, lest you forget, I am an Aries, after all. Go ahead. Just try and stop me.

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