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BUCKLEY'S BLOG: A tragedy repeated in Moore

They say lightning never strikes twice. Sadly, "they" are wrong. Moore, OK is now home to two of the most devastating tornadoes ever recorded. The tragedy of this most recent tornado disaster is unthinkable, and yet it happened before, in the same place a mere 14 years ago.

"Worse than May 3rd"

The headline in The Oklahoman says it all. The "May 3rd" referred to was May 3, 1999. That's when a devastating tornado plowed through the Oklahoma City suburbs, completely devouring everything in its path. The twister was so powerful that it reduced homes to concrete slabs, and ripped grass from the earth. 

Its total destruction registered as an F5 on the Fujita Scale, the highest rating possible.

For meteorologists, this is THE storm that is found in today's textbooks. The classic "hook echo" structure was seen on radar, and the monster storm measured over one mile in diameter.

A "doppler on wheels" mobile radar unit recorded a 308 mph wind gust above the surface inside of the tornado. This is the highest wind speed ever measured on planet earth. 

Aerial view of May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado damage.

The human impact with this storm was sobering, as it directly claimed 36 lives, injuring over 500 others.

In the way that Hurricane Katrina captivated and changed the culture of New Orleans forever, the "May 3rd" tornado changed Moore forever. 

Already a tornado-prone area, the F5 raised awareness like never before. 6,000 storm shelters were constructed in the 4 years following the 1999 tornado.

Tested Again in 2003

Just 4 years after the 1999 storm Moore was again hit by a twister. This time, a high-end F3 as it moved through the suburb.

Damage from May 8, 2003 tornado. (Photo credit: NWS Norman)

Multiple buildings throughout the town including hotels, offices buildings,a church, daycares, and restaurants were severely damaged or destroyed in the repeat of 1999. 

145 people were injured this time around, but miraculously nobody was killed.

A Nightmare Re-lived

This year's tornado emerged on a Monday afternoon. Severe weather had been forecast for days, and as the peak heating of the day arrived - storms began to fire across Oklahoma.

By 2:40 CDT a "Tornado Warning" was issued for a cell that had popped up SW of Oklahoma City, headed towards Moore. National Weather Service meteorologists saw that rotation had begun in an intense thunderstorm, and suspected that a tornado was imminent.

16 minutes later, a tornado was reported on the ground. At this point, visuals of the storm are telling the story that this will be no ordinary tornado. 

At 3:01 CDT, a "Tornado Emergency" was declared for Moore by the NWS. This means severe damage and loss of life is likely as a tornado moves over a populated area. 

In the next 30 minutes, the tornado bulldozed through the community carving a brutal path of destruction at least a mile wide before dissipating.

Radar imagery from May 20th, 2013. Reflectivity on left shows the classic "hook echo" signature of an intense tornado. Velocity data on right shows intense rotation. (Green indicates inbound motion with red indicating outbound motion)

The comparisons between this storm and the 1999 storm are eerie to say the least. On radar, both storms show the classic features of an intense tornado:

  • Well defined "hook echo" -- the curved feature twisting around the underside of the storm. This is where the tornado exists in the storm.
  • Similar size and scope.
  • "Debris ball" -- area of brighter returns near the tornado center which is literally showing debris of homes, trees, etc. flung thousands of feet into the air. (Think of it like a piece of metal showing up in an X-Ray image)

It is still too early to assess all the damage from this monster storm, but it seems like it surely could be "worse than 1999". The human toll is already higher than the 36 killed in 1999, and the devastation may be on a larger scale overall after all the surveying is done. 

What are the Odds?

How can a disaster like this happen in the same town twice? It sounds impossible, but clearly it's not. All we can do is look at probabilities, and if you take all the data we have on tornadoes the message is pretty clear. 

This map documents areas that have the best chance of seeing a significant tornado (EF2 or greater) within 25 miles of their area for the middle of May. As you can see, 1999, 2003, and 2013 all fall within the most likely area in the US to see these type of storms. 

Unfortunately, central Oklahoma is extremely prone to devastating tonadoes. Even still, the odds of the same storm striking the same town with such a similar path is hard to fathom.

The people of Moore have been through a tremendous amount of grief and pain. Send them your thoughts, your prayers, your money if you can. Surely, they need it most. 

- TB

By: Tim Buckley

Tim

What causes a tornado to be 1 mile wide versus several hundred feet or yards wide? Are there any theoretical limits to a tornado's size?
Vog

Good question

Vog,

Many factors contribute to the width of a tornado. Things like actual tornado size, cloud base height, moisture content of the air all play a role. Overall though, a storm that produces a mile wide tornado has a violent, broad area of rotation as opposed to a smaller, tighter area of rotation.

9/10 times, the wider the tornado, the stronger the tornado. Reason being, you need more energy involved to rotate this large area of a thunderstorm; that energy is translated into high wind speeds and stronger storms.

The average width of a tornado is about 200 yards, or 1/10 mi. Mile-wide tornadoes are quite rare, and the all time record for width is a mammoth 2.5 miles (Nebraska, 2004). This should serve as a sort of "ceiling" for conceivable width, although there's nothing to say that something larger COULDN'T happen.

- TB