The Heat Is Online

318 mph Tornado Devastates Oklahoma City

318 mph winds fastest recorded
Tue May 11 1999 18:04 EDT
Tad McNair,

Amid the destruction and death of last week’s devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma City science is being done which could one day save lives. Storm chasers have been putting themselves in the line of danger for years in hopes of revealing the mysteries that lie just below the surface of a severe thunderstorm or tornado.

New technology is reaping benefits and the research of these daredevil meteorologists is starting to pay greater and great dividends. It is one feature of this science that is making headlines and will possibly help to redefine how we think about tornadoes.

The headline is simple: Scientists have clocked wind speeds associated with a tornado at 318 mph.

Using a truck mounted Doppler radar (dubbed DOW or Doppler on Wheels) a group from the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology measured the fastest wind speed ever recorded on the planet. The scientists clocked one of the tornado's rotations at 142 meters-per-second or 318 mph.

The ramifications of this discovery are less obvious.

The record breaking measurement is initially notable because it hits the upper limit of the F5 category on the Fujita scale, just one mph below a theoretically impossible F6. "It's not just that this wind speed measurement comes so close to being an F6," says Dr. John Scala, Severe Weather Specialist for The Weather Channel, "but that a wind speed above 300 mph has been measured."

Previously the fastest wind speed recorded came in at 286 mph near Red Rock, Okla. in April of 1991.

"What many people don't realize," says Scala, "is the Fujita scale actually has 13 categories (F0 to F12, with F12 being the speed of sound), but anything above F5 was considered theoretically impossible in our atmosphere."

When Dr. T. Theodore Fujita, along with Allen Pearson, created the scale for tornado intensity at the University of Chicago in 1971, he used a non-linear scale to categorize the wind speeds. So a single mph in speed, one way or the other, doesn't magically increase or decrease the intensity of the storm. What it does do is raise the question of how accurate any such scale can be.

"What may be needed is a new scale with better defined categories and more exacting numbers," says Scala, " and not just with tornado wind speeds, but with hurricanes as well. There is a move afoot to replace the current system of categorizing hurricanes with a more detailed one."

Currently, the system for classifying a tornado involves determining the magnitude of damage caused by a tornado and converting it into an estimation of the wind speeds associated with the tornado. But new technology, such as the DOW, is giving scientists a greater understanding of what's going on both inside and outside of a twister. With that information, they can glean a better picture of how a twister is formed, how long it will last and ultimately what kind of damage it will cause.

This technology has already redefined our understanding of how a tornado works in our atmosphere. According to Fujita, it was believed that a tornado could not sustain a wind speed in excess of 318 mph. Typically, such a powerful tornado would produce smaller "offspring" twisters that would spin off from the main "parent" vortex.

"With the realization that the atmosphere can support one big twister," says Scala, "we have to rethink not just where the upper limit of a possible tornado lies in terms of wind speed, but also the entire dynamic of how a tornado interacts with our atmosphere."

And while tornado and storm prediction may never be perfect and our understanding of the phenomenon may never be whole, the quest for that knowledge continues. The pursuit of which could mean instead of having scant minutes to save lives, forecasters will have upwards to an hour to warn of impending danger.

ABC Nightly News: May 8, 1999: Tornado reached speeds of 318 mph -- highest ever recorded -- with more than 50 dead and more than 9,000 buildings destroyed. The area experienced more than 70 tornadoes in an 8 hour period.

CNN Headline News: May 9, 1999: Damages from tornadoes to exceed $1 Billion

May 4, 1999

Tornadoes Kill Dozens in Midwest

By The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Devastating tornadoes too numerous to count roared across Oklahoma and Kansas, killing at least 45 people and bringing destruction to cities and small towns alike.

The state medical examiner said 40 people were killed in Oklahoma alone in Monday's storms, the largest of which formed about 45 miles southwest of Oklahoma City and cut a path at least a half-mile wide as it moved north and east.

Winds reached as much as more than 260 miles per hour. (ABC news)

(The area experienced more than 70 tornadoes in an 8 hour period (ABC Nightly News)

``It looks like the Murrah Building, but instead of nine stories tall, it's spread out over a large area,'' said Oklahoma City assistant fire chief Jon Hansen, referring to the federal building bombing four years ago.

About 150 miles north, a tornado spawned by the same storm system tossed mobile homes like tin cans, damaged houses and killed at least five people in Wichita, Kan., and its suburb of Haysville. Hospitals reported treating more than 80 people.

Fred Irvin of the Sedgwick County Emergency Preparedness Office said early today the initial count of 10 deaths there proved wrong when authorities realized victims had been counted twice. But authorities still feared more dead would be found.

``It is worse than what you can see,'' said Bob Thompson, a battalion chief for the Sedgwick County Fire Department. ``We'll probably find more deaths. I don't think we've seen the end of it.''

Several mobile homes in south Wichita were blown into a lake, Irvin said.

Chad Harris was with seven people inside his mobile home in Haysville when it was flipped over and demolished. Two of his companions were critically injured.

``I have no trailer,'' Harris said. ``We all rolled in it. It was the worst experience in my life.''

In Oklahoma, the dead included 11 people in the community of Bridge Creek, about 30 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, said Ben Frizzell, spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Management.

Others died in Oklahoma City and nearby Midwest City, Moore, Del City and Norman.

``We have whole communities that simply aren't there anymore,'' Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating told NBC's ``Today'' show.

``It certainly looks like a huge battle has taken place,'' he said. ``There are entire neighborhoods to the south of me that are no longer there.''

Rows and rows of houses were reduced to rubble. Cars were tossed about and crushed. Natural gas spewed from ruptured lines. Power poles were reduced to kindling and broken, twisted wires fluttered in the breeze.

Hospitals in the Oklahoma City metro area treated 563 people for tornado-related injuries, police Capt. Charles Allen said.

This morning, a tornado warning was in effect for in north-central Oklahoma.

At least half a dozen other tornadic storms formed over five hours Monday evening, mainly in central and northeast Oklahoma. Some sprouted funnel clouds, but there were no immediate reports of widespread damage or deaths.

The system also spawned twisters in north and west Texas, but did no major damage there.

In Oklahoma, the main tornado formed near Chickasha, about 45 miles southwest of the capital city. It skipped its way across the flat Oklahoma countryside, toppling trees, power lines, outbuildings and cars until it ripped into south Oklahoma City.

The National Severe Storms Lab in Norman said the tornado may have been a mile wide at times. Weather service forecaster David Andra predicted the twister would be categorized at lest an F-4, the second-strongest tornado classification, with winds between 207 mph and 260 mph.

In Kansas, Wichita's tornado tore a 10-mile path that reached 3 1/4 miles wide. Smaller twisters struck Sumner and Butler counties, as well as other parts of Sedgwick County, but none caused substantial damage or injuries.

Kansas Gov. Bill Graves declared a state of disaster for Sedgwick County, while Keating declared a state of emergency and activated two National Guard units.

James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was to survey the damage today.

In Moore, Catherine Meyers hid under a mattress when the storm hit her home.

``My mattress didn't help me,'' she said, bleeding from her head and arm. ``I got hit four or five times on the head by something. I've lost a lot of blood.''

Mary Pat Faris, who weathered the storm in her bathtub, wore a nightgown at Del City High School and waited for word about missing family members.

``I heard it,'' she said. ``I heard the popping and then I heard the trees crunching and then my house was gone.''

Oklahoma and Kansas Face Tornadoes' Cruel Path

By Rick Lyman

The New York Times -- May 5, 1999

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Under incongruously clear skies, tens of thousands of residents across two states began grappling Tuesday with the aftermath of a series of monster tornadoes that killed at least 43 people, injured more than 500, destroyed more than 1,500 buildings and left behind mile after mile of twisted metal, denuded trees, crumpled cars and imploded buildings.

Standing in the faceless rubble of their communities, they stared, shook their heads and joked ruefully with one another, hoping to find some last shard of their former lives that had escaped the devastation.

A fierce line of storms roared across Oklahoma and southern Kansas late Monday, unleashing an unknown number of twisters, including one particularly brutal one that the authorities said was at times as wide as a mile.

That particular tornado -- which some experts said might have risen to the level of F5, the strongest classification ever seen -- gouged across the southern edge of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, at one point wiping more than 200 homes over eight acres in the suburb of Moore off their foundations like ice scraped off a windshield.

Officials said they expected the death toll to rise.

By late Tuesday, officials were still unable to say how widespread the damage was and how extensive the injuries, though at least 1,500 homes and businesses appeared to have suffered either total or substantial damage in Oklahoma, and at least 200 others in southern Kansas.

The dead came from all across central Oklahoma: from the capital, Oklahoma City, and from the suburbs of Moore, Midwest City, Del City and Norman. Eleven of the dead came from Bridge Creek, about 30 miles southwest of the capital, near where the largest funnel began its rampage.

In addition, five people were killed by a separate tornado that hit Haysville, Kan., a town of 8,000 people south of Wichita.

Kathi R. Ferguson, 38, collapsed in sobs against her mother as she looked at the wreckage of her home in Moore. "I spent most of my life in that house," Ms. Ferguson said through tears.

She had rushed from her home in Tulsa to find her parents and see what had become of the brick house where she had lived for 30 years.

"It didn't collapse -- it blew away," said Clifford L. Dodson, 73, her father, a retired technician with the Federal Aviation Administration.

One of Dodson's sons-in-law, Brent K. Mackay, 34, tried to clear debris from what had been the front door. Mackay lives nearby but had not been allowed by officials to go to his home, which was also destroyed.

"They won't let me into my own house," he said through a smile. "So you've got to do something."

By Tuesday afternoon, bulldozers had begun to push into the most devastated neighborhoods, helicopters hovered overhead and the intermittent sound of chain saws bled through the roar of the wind. In those hardest-hit areas, most of the houses had been stripped of walls and roofing, not a leaf remained on the trees, many of which were strewn with bits of metal and wood like gruesome ornaments. At one home, a dozen men's shirts swung from their hangers in a closet that had lost its walls, and numerous curtains flapped like pennants through yawning, glassless windows.

Long sheets of metal, apparently roofing material, hung from the few remaining power lines where they had been blown with such force that they wrapped around like taffy -- yet, oddly, the lines themselves had not been pulled down.

Residents were being allowed into many of the struck areas, but in those areas where the structures appeared most precarious, residents were still being kept out Tuesday afternoon. Those trying to get to their homes were asked to show officials identification with a photograph. A 6:30 P.M. curfew was put into place.

Many were reminded of the bombing of the Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in April 1995 and of 168 people who were killed.

"This is like eight or nine Murrah Buildings scattered around the city," said Representative J. C. Watts Jr., Republican of Oklahoma. "I've seen everything from a mother in a hospital not knowing where her two sons are to a family holding a wicker basket saying, 'This is all we have to start over with.' "

News reports were still trickling in about damage in small towns and rural areas across the region while in Oklahoma City about 750 National Guardsmen helped local officials and rescue dogs make two searches Tuesday for those who might still be trapped in the rubble.

Gary Morris, the Oklahoma City fire chief, said Tuesday afternoon that no one had been found trapped in the rubble in these forays, so officials were ready to make a third and more substantial search.

"We do have very extensive damage and substantial loss of life in Oklahoma," Gov. Frank Keating said during a tour of the devastation of Moore. "It is important for us all to be good citizens and to share with one another during this very, very difficult period, as we attempt to identify our losses and rebuild."

Among the officials joining Governor Keating on the tour was James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The two had a brief telephone conversation with President Clinton, who was in Washington, and learned that the President had declared Oklahoma a Federal disaster area. A separate declaration for parts of Kansas was also in the works.

"The people of Oklahoma City, in particular, have suffered too much devastation in recent years and they have been hit very, very hard by this," Clinton said.

While officials of the National Weather Service said tornadoes struck five states on Monday, from Texas to South Dakota, the storm that devastated parts of this state started in southwestern Oklahoma near Lawton, said Paul Janish, a meteorologist with the

National Storm Prediction Center.

It rapidly became severe and produced a string of several, short-lived tornadoes. As the storm moved northeast at about 30 miles an hour, it grew and became more organized, eventually producing larger tornadoes as it approached Oklahoma City, Janish said.

"Around 7 P.M., the storm intensified into a large super-cell storm and produced a very large, violent tornado," he said, which touched down north of Chickasha, 26 miles southwest of the capital, and stayed on the ground until it reached Tinker Air Force Base, just east of the capital.

The storm system moved across southern Oklahoma City, through the the suburb of Moore and continued northeast until it wiped out a factory outlet mall near Stroud, between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The storm produced tornadoes for over a 100-mile track, Janish said. "It wasn't a continuous tornado," he said, "but during the entire path was producing tornadoes almost continuously."

This was all "very extraordinary," Janish said, because "typically what happens when we get a thunderstorm that produces a tornado, the tornado will go through its life cycle and weaken in a short period of time and then the storm may produce another."

But this particular monster twister had an unusually long life cycle.

"The average life span of any given tornado is probably less than 10 minutes," Janish said. "This tornado was not only unusually large and long lived but unusually destructive in its wind speeds. It's definitely one of the longer track tornadoes you'll ever see."

The tornado was mainly at a level of F4, with winds speeds of 207 to 260 m.p.h. At that intensity houses are leveled or blown off their foundations and cars can be thrown, Janish said. At F5, winds speeds are as high as 318 m.p.h. F6 tornadoes are classified as "inconceivable."

Experts said that even though these tornadoes ranked among the most powerful of their breed, there was nothing out of the ordinary about them, meteorologically speaking.

"It's spring, it's Oklahoma, and tornadoes and even strong tornadoes are not unusual," said Fred Gadomski, a meteorologist with the Pennsylvania State University Weather Communications Group.

Tornadoes materialize within large thunderstorms, which in this case were produced by a clash of cold air from the west with warm, moist air to the east. They often appear on the southern Great Plains in the spring, in an area of Oklahoma and Kansas called Tornado Alley.

What made the disaster unusual, Gadomski said, was that "by the luck of the draw, the tornadoes went through a relatively heavily populated neck of the woods."

The chances that one of the most powerful class of tornadoes "will go over any individual spot in a person's lifetime is on the order of 1 in 10 million," Gadomski said, "even in Tornado Alley."

Tornadoes often stay on the ground for very short periods, sometimes rising into the sky and then dropping down again, bouncing along the countryside. But the largest of Monday's twisters, the one that ripped through south of Oklahoma City, was believed to have been on the ground for four hours.

Paul G. Knight, another Penn State meteorologist, said that this was "extraordinary" but that tornadoes staying on the ground an hour or two probably developed at least once a year.

"Most of the time it goes through Farmer Joe's field," Knight said, and so the impact is largely unappreciated. The longest-lived tornado, he said, is believed to have been set by a 1925 twister that was on the ground for seven hours, wiping out several towns in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

The National Weather Service said 45 tornado sightings in Oklahoma were reported on Monday, more than half the total for all of last year.

And the tornadoes continued today at the juncture of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. At least one person was killed in Titus County, Tex., and 11 were injured in DeKalb.

Marty and Veroia Bernich survived Monday's storm with their two daughters at their brick-and-frame home in the Highland Park neighborhood on the south side of Moore.

"We huddled in a hallway under a mattress," Bernich said. "We could feel ourselves elevated, you know, like up to the sky. We could hear things smashing around us."

Tuesday afternoon, Bernich surveyed what was left of his house. "There's nothing left," he said. An art educator and potter, Bernich stood among shards of his work that littered what was left of his living room while, eerily, several of his other pots still sat on shelves, inches away, upright and untouched.

Bernich was angry that state officials were not allowing him to bring in more vehicles to cart away more of his damaged goods.

"I just need a little empathy," he said to one official, barely holding back his anger. "My home has been put in a blender and we're being treated like Kosovo refugees. Just allow us to take whatever is left."

But Government officials, worried about a traffic jam in the debris-clogged streets, were keeping vehicles to a minimum.

Tammy L. Staggs, 35, a forklift operator, was trying to maneuver a truckload of recovered household goods from the wreckage of the three-bedroom home she shared with Michele D. Moore, 34. It was like threading a needle as the truck squeezed between piles of metal, sheet rock and brick.

"We just moved in two weeks ago," said Ms. Moore, a machinist in Norman. "That's all you can do, just start over. We had just put in new wallpaper, just settled in, when this happened."

Ms. Moore had been away when the storm hit, but Ms. Staggs was there, huddled under a mattress in a central hallway with their two dogs. "You take for granted that it won't happen to you," Ms. Staggs said. "I've never seen anything like this, except for on TV. We're shook up and bruised up, but we're fine."

In Moore, where the twister cut a three-mile-long swath at least five to six blocks wide, the assistant fire chief, Terry Schatt, said officials were assessing the damage after at least one victim had already been sent to a morgue.

"It pretty much demolished everything along its path through here, and we're still not sure what we're going to find when we bring in the heavy equipment," Schatt said. "There may be more bodies or we may have gotten them all. We just don't know yet."

In the 400-home Highland Park neighborhood, evidence of the storm's destructive power stretched as far as the eye could see: block after block of destroyed houses and smashed automobiles; mounds of splintered lumber and twisted wiring; toppled signs uprooted from their concrete bases, trees stripped of leaves and bark.

Louis Bennett, an Assembly of God pastor from a nearby area, stood at an intersection in Highland Park and offered counseling to residents leaving the neighborhood.

"We've got a hundred families in there that are survivors, but they're just not ready to come out," Bennett said. "They want to stay with their homes and see what they can save."

The Lakeside Golf Course in Moore, which was renovated last year, was a wasteland today.

Joe O'Bryant, 60, the course's superintendent, said he had been watching television reports about the storm in his mobile home by the side of the golf course when he decided to head for a sturdier building. O'Bryant got to the clubhouse just in time to see the half-mile-wide column of churning air crossing the highway that abuts the course.

"It was pushing half a mile or more wide," he said. "You could see trees in it, flying around."

He ran into the restroom, and felt the walls collapse around him. He was pinned beneath a crumbled wall, hugging a bar stool.

"It took about 45 minutes to dig me out," said O'Bryant, who had cuts on his nose and ears and a badly bruised right leg. "When I got out I was shocked. I thought that maybe the roof had collapsed. But the whole building was gone."

The clubhouse was reduced to a pile of loose cinder blocks, splintered bits of wood, scores of mangled irons and muddy balls and twisted wrecks of green golf carts piled on top of one another.

The only trace of O'Bryant's trailer was a muddy plot of land where it had once stood. Bits of the chassis were found 500 yards away.

Elsewhere, dazed residents, some seemingly still in shock, picked through unrecognizable stacks of debris, searching for familiar objects or valuables. One woman sat on the steps of her front porch -- almost all that remained of her house -- and hugged a barking German shepherd.

"It looks more like a bombing than a storm," said Billie Sue Rhodes, 69, as she plucked a framed photograph from a pile of wreckage. Mrs. Rhodes and her husband, Thurman, 73, were at home when the tornado struck and took refuge together in a closet. Today it is the only part of the house still standing. At one point in the storm, Rhodes had left the closet to retrieve his glasses and the wind threatened to carry him away.

"I just couldn't get back inside to the closet and if she hadn't grabbed me and hung on till the wind laid down, I wouldn't be here," Rhodes said. "She's a real hero to me, but I guess she has been for 49 years."

Rhodes, who said he had suffered three recent strokes, said he and his wife had lost everything in the storm and would probably have to move into an assisted-living center. As he rested against an overturned television cabinet in what once was his living room, Rhodes reflected on the results of the last 24 hours: "Liked to have kept the house, but the storm took care of that; would have liked to kept the car, but I don't really need it. At least we've still got each other."