May 3, 1999. To those outside of Oklahoma, this date means very little. But to those Okies who survived the largest tornado outbreak in state history, “May 3rd” is forever branded into our collective conscious. That day over 60 tornadoes swept across the Southern Plains, with the vast majority in central Oklahoma. Many of the tornadoes were strong, and at least 4 were violent (F4/F5). Most people remember the Bridge Creek / Moore tornado, which still holds the world record for highest wind speed on Earth (~300 mph). That tornado lasted well over an hour, and claimed the lives of over 30 people. Interestingly, that tornado was really only the beginning of the outbreak, as many more tornadoes occurred well after dark. The most impressive of these was the Mulhall tornado, which was well over a mile in diameter; based on mobile radar data, it was probably more intense than the Moore tornado. The following is my story from that day.
It was early May in 1999, and I was finally sniffing the scent of summer freedom. Finals would occur in a little under two weeks, and I couldn’t have been happier. It was Monday and, as was my custom, I ate lunch with my best friend Robert at the Norman High stadium. We referred to it as “The Top of the World”, as we were able to enjoy the early spring breeze – and a sense of separation from the other students. It was our hideout – the meeting place of our not-so-secret society.
But that day, we began to feel a little restless. The weather was warm and muggy, and we had a case of the Summer Itch. “We haven’t skipped class in a while,” I mused. “No, we haven’t,” Robert agreed. “Why not skip today? We won’t be able to next week…” I suggested. Robert quickly agreed and we set off on foot (neither of us had cars), as the lunch hour was coming to an end. “Which direction should we go?” Robert asked. I indicated that “north” seemed a good direction to me. And so we went.
After a half an hour of (somewhat) aimless walking, we arrived at the intersection of Berry and Robinson streets. From there, we could see the North Base, where the Norman Weather Forecast Office (Norman WFO) was located at the time. My dad worked for the Operational Support Facility (OSF), and he often spent time at the WFO. I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea, but I suggested that we go say “Hello” to my dad. Somehow, I figured he wouldn’t be bothered by my ditching class.
When we arrived at the WFO, we were greeted by an OSF engineer, who looked a bit surprised that a couple of young neo-hippies had entered. I inquired about my father, but he indicated that he was not at the North Base that day. “You guys college students?” he asked. “Nah, we’re in high school,” Robert replied, guitar case in hand. “… On a field trip,” I added. This wasn’t entirely a lie, as we had, in fact, crossed a field to get there. “Well, would you like to take a tour of the Weather Service?” he asked. Of course we would! After all, what else did we have to do?
The engineer left the room momentarily to ask about a tour. We waited patiently. A few minutes later he came back with a look of regret on his face: “Sorry, guys. I guess the Weather Service folks are going to be a bit busy today with severe weather.” “Are they expecting tornadoes?” Robert asked. “I don’t know. I actually don’t think we’ll see many tornadoes today. Tomorrow should be the bigger day…” he replied. With that, he gave us the card of the meteorologist-in-charge, and said that we should give him a call sometime to get a tour. As we left, I distinctly remember the last thing I saw at the WFO that day: an image of the Red Rock tornado, a violent tornado that struck northern Oklahoma in 1991.
After leaving the WFO, we decided to head west from there. And west, as Normanites know, is the direction of the Max Westheimer airfield. It was quite hot and humid that day, so we decided to take a rest from our walking and play a little guitar. We found a runway overgrown with weeds, and assumed that no planes would be taking off from there that day. After a few minutes of playing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “The Very Last Day,” we noticed a yellow security vehicle approaching us from the airport terminal. Its lights were flashing. Uh oh. We briefly pondered making a run for it, but reasoned that that would make us look decidedly guilty. So we stayed.
The security vehicle arrived and a middle-aged gentleman stepped out. “You boys realize that you’re trespassing on airport property?” We indicated that we knew. “Did you realize that trespassing on airport property is a federal offense?” We shook our heads, “No, sir, we did not know that…” as the gravity of the situation came to bear on us. “I’m going to have to ask you to come back with me to the terminal.” Terminal – how fitting: the place where our lives would terminate! Not only were we skipping class, we had just committed a federal offense! He motioned for us to climb into the back of the pickup truck.
Upon arriving at the terminal, he asked us to wait while he went inside. We once again contemplated making a break for it. Again, we decided against it. Two minutes later, he came back with two 20 ounce Cokes. He handed them to us and said, “Guys, don’t do that again.” We hurriedly assented to his request, took the frosty beverages, and set off, marveling at our good fortune.
After a bit more walking, we came to Andrews Park. We relaxed there for a while longer, as we had grown weary from our travels. It was about 3 p.m. then, and little did I know that the first storm of the day was attempting to initiate 100 miles to our southwest. The sky was overcast – a thick canopy of cirrus had overspread the area. Even so, it remained preternaturally balmy. I mentioned to Robert that it felt like tornado weather; he agreed.
We arrived back at school just in time for the last bell, and found our rides home. Along the way, I did my best to avoid revealing to my mom that I had not been in school. As soon as I got home, I turned on the television. Sure enough, a tornado watch had been issued. As the evening progressed, I watched the outbreak unfold on television. I went with my mom to pick my dad up from work, hoping to convince him to take me storm chasing. But he was worried that Storm A (as it was later named) would come into Norman, and he felt an obligation to stay with our family (and, especially, an elderly neighbor). I was incredibly disappointed, and I continued to plead with him, but to no avail.
We ended up taking shelter at the OU Student Union, and I remember watching the television coverage from the CBS affiliate. Many college students stood there, their eyes glued to the TV sets. Reports of a large tornado southwest of Norman came in, up to a mile wide. I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to see the tornado, so I left the TV room to go to the parking garage. At the top of the parking garage, I still couldn’t see anything, since the trees were too high. Additionally, the cloud bases were too low. Disappointed, I returned to the TV room.
By that time, it was clear that Norman would be spared, as the large tornado was beginning to tear through southwest Oklahoma City. Realizing our relative safety, we left the Union. We turned on the radio, and heard ominous reports of incredible damage in Moore. I could barely comprehend the magnitude of what was transpiring. To the south, I noticed a new storm had violently erupted skyward – almost as if a nuclear weapon had detonated. This would become the Stroud storm. To this day, I cannot recall seeing more explosive storms.
Back at home, I was still sore about not getting to see the tornado. My dad, sensing my disappointment, decided that we should take a family trip to see the next storm, Storm B. We headed west on Highway 9, and went up to the intersection of Highway 9 and Interstate 44, just north of Newcastle. Little did we know that F5 tornado damage lay less than a half mile to our west. From that location, we could see a highly-sheared supercell thunderstorm to our northwest. Unfortunately, it was just too hazy to see the multiple-vortex tornado that was being reported near Minco.
We went back home, and I watched television coverage for the rest of the night. The outbreak was in full force, but most of the TV coverage focused on the disaster that had just struck Oklahoma City. Finally, around 11 p.m., I went to bed, marveling at what I had experienced that day.
What was your May 3rd experience?