An Unforgettable Chase – The EF5 Moore Tornado (5/20/13)

Two years ago today, I observed an EF5 tornado ripping through Moore, Oklahoma.  Before the tornado, I had always wondered what it would have been like to see an F5 hit Moore (thinking of 5/3/99).  I never thought that I would actually find out.

That morning, I woke up late, in anticipation of a late start to my work day at the National Weather Center. Since it was a weekday, I wasn’t planning on chasing. Out of curiosity, though, I thought I would check out the forecast. While waiting for my computer to boot, I went outside to get a feel for the weather. It was sunny – but cool – and stratocumulus clouds were racing northward with the low-level jet. It just had the “feel” of a big day (most folks who have spent significant time in Tornado Alley know what I mean).

I went back inside to check out the forecast. After going through the usual parameter checking, I perused a few convection-allowing models (weather models that predict actual thunderstorms). An ominous forecast was projected: supercell thunderstorms would develop in central Oklahoma by mid-afternoon. I became increasingly concerned about the possibility of a significant tornado not far from Norman.

OUN WRF - May 20

8 hour forecast of updraft helicity and reflectivity from the OUN WRF on 5/20/13.

About an hour later, I arrived at work. Realizing that storms were already firing, I started to become antsy.  I checked the SPC mesoanalysis, and realized a very potent atmosphere was already taking shape. Dewpoints were close to 70 F, instability was extreme, and low-level shear was strong enough to promote strong tornadoes – long before the usual increase of strong winds near sunset.

I was able to get off work, but I started my chase a little late (around 2 pm).  I called a friend of mine to see if her chase group had left town yet. I was very relieved to find out that I had caught them in time (I didn’t want to chase alone). So I quickly met them on the southeast side of Norman, where we began our chase.  A major supercell had already developed near Duncan, Okahoma, so we took off on Highway 77 to go toward it.

Near Purcell, we learned that a storm near Newcastle had already become tornado-warned.  A quick check of radar showed a very poweful-looking supercell with a large hook echo.  We immediately decided to go north toward it. While were driving into Purcell, we heard a report of a tornado with this storm.  That was quick!  One of my chase partners pulled up the KWTV live feed on her phone and saw that a photogenic stovepipe tornado had formed.  By the time we entered I-35 north of Purcell, the tornado had already become a wedge (a period of about 3 minutes). We zoomed north as quickly as possible.  As we went along, the rock-hard flanking line becoming visible – some of the most powerful convection I’ve ever seen. In Norman, we scanned the sky to the northwest, looking for the tornado.  It was too hazy.

At Tecumseh Road, we exited I-35.  It was about 3:05 pm.  While crossing the bridge near the Healthplex, we caught our first glimpse of the tornado to the west-northwest. Though it was still hazy, we could easily make out the massive wedge against the pale orange sky behind it.  I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was happening again.  A violent tornado was moving into Moore.  To say it was “surreal” is a vast understatement.

We continued west until we arrived at Santa Fe, where we turned north.  Trees and houses obscured our view for a while, and during this stretch the funnel transitioned to a stovepipe.  Near the intersection of Indian Hills on Santa Fe, we saw the tornado again.  There, I was stunned to see the violence of the motion at the base of the funnel.  Other than the El Reno tornado of May 24, 2011, it was the most violent tornado I’d seen.  I began to pray incessantly as I realized it wasn’t going to stop before Moore.

IMG_0625

Moore EF5 tornado as viewed from Indian Hills and 36th. 3:15 pm on 5/20/13

Fearing a right turn by the tornado, we turned onto Indian Hills – just south of due east from the tornado.  We stopped at a church parking lot along the road to film the tornado.  As the tornado drew closer, I began to see large chunks of debris encircling the tornado.  I looked above the funnel and saw shimmering pieces of metal – roughly 3 or 4 times taller than the funnel.  The updrafts in the tornado were incredibly powerful: at this time, the tornado moved a large water tank (10 tons empty) over a half mile and deposited it in someone’s backyard.

IMG_0564

10-ton tank tossed 0.5 mi by the Moore tornado.

Around the same time, an unmistakable roar became audible.  I would liken it to the sound of a thousand waterfalls.  No straining was necessary to hear it, even from a distance of two miles.  I can’t convey the horror of realizing that people are probably dying right in front of you. The usual excitement of seeing a major tornado was nowhere to be found.  All I felt was anxiety and fear: this wasn’t happening to strangers, this was happening to my friends.  It was sickening.

The tornado became increasingly rain-wrapped as it approached I-35.  I thought, mistakenly, that the tornado was widening into a large wedge. The reality was that a combination of rain and debris created the illusion of a larger tornado.  Around that time, I remember looking north and seeing Andy Alligator’s / HeyDay with the dark mass behind them; it was such a strange contrast!

As we were crossing I-35 on Indian Hills, it was pure chaos. A traffic jam had developed south of the tornado on Telephone Road, and a cop was yelling at us to keep it moving. We continued east as we lost sight of the tornado, now wrapped in rain and hidden by buildings. About 5 minutes later, the tornado came out of the rain as a much-smaller stovepipe. Even though it was smaller, video that I saw later revealed it to be quite violent near the base. Just as we were driving north for a close approach on Sooner Road, the tornado began to rope out – and quite spectacularly. The funnel writhed chaotically for about 30 seconds, debris centrifuging outwards and falling downward.  Forty minutes after it began, the tornado dissipated.

We couldn’t believe what we had just seen. We listened to horrifying reports on the radio of complete devastation, somewhere near the Warren Theater. We realized that we had just seen a historical tornado, but there was no celebration in our vehicle. I guess the best way to describe it is “numbness.” We contemplated returning to Moore to help, but we realized our ignorance of how to help could put us in the way at best, or get us killed at worse (downed powerlines, glass shards, nails, etc.). So, we decided to chase on.

The remains of the Briarwood Elementary School.

The remains of the Briarwood Elementary School.

We saw another tornado near Pauls Valley. It was a 30-second multiple-vortex tornado. Normally, I would’ve been thrilled to see it. But I can honestly say that I’ve never been less enthused to see a tornado. It seemed as if the rest of the chase was simply out of obligation, because I didn’t want to regret it in the future. Mercifully, the rest of the event was lackluster, as storms lined out in southern Oklahoma. It is a day I will never forget.

Video of the chase.

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About Gabe Garfield

I am a research meteorologist from Norman, Oklahoma. In addition to my work, I am interested in storm chasing, sports, philosophy, theology, and culture.
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