Skip to content

What we can learn from the tornado tragedy in Oklahoma.

6-2-2013 2-56-56 PM

It’s been a horrible few weeks in Oklahoma and then today we learned it got even more tragic as we mourn the loss 3 stalwarts in the storm chaser and severe weather research community. These deaths are even more shocking to the meteorology community because Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young were known for their safety and research breakthroughs. Many chasers including experienced chasers got caught off guard by the size of the mesocyclone which rotated vorticies around it. I think some became focused on the tornado & lost track of what the overlying storm was doing. This is easy to do. Then you throw in major chaser congestion, bad roads, rain wrapped HP supercell and public traffic it made for a very bad recipe that day for the chasers and the public alike. There are many good blog posts out there about what happened but we should try to shy away from getting too critical while at the same time learning from this day. There are many lessons to be learned by the chaser community, meteorologists and the public from that day. As we pray for those we lost and their families we owe it to them all to learn and get better at what we do. I thought I’d shard my opinions on tornado safety and a little explanation of what made this storms so dangerous.

The set-up that day:

In many ways this was the worst group of ingredients I have seen so far this year for supercells. Even worse looking than the Moore set-up back on the 20th.

The 2 HP supercells on the end of the line became very dangerous around El Reno and OKC.

Why were these so dangerous?

Check out the width of the mesocyclone or the “bears cage” as chasers would call it. Plus it’s becoming completely rain wrapped.

6-2-2013 2-52-40 PM 6-2-2013 2-54-09 PM

6-2-2013 2-56-56 PM

6-2-2013 2-45-51 PM

6-2-2013 2-49-04 PM

Underneath the mesocyclone we had funnels dropping every where because they were rotating around the base of the meso they were moving all over the 6-10 mile wide bears cage. Then throw in the fact that the meso was so close to the ground it was drawing in winds between 80-100 mph into it far and wide. This left many chasers and drivers vulnerable to dangerous and what proved to be deadly winds.

So what can we learn?

Talk about burying the lead here but this is very important. There is likely never a perfect tornado procedure that works in every situation in real life. So I suggest that you always look to improve your situation with the time you have.

Scales of tornado shelter, find a way to move your odds up in your favor.

In the perfect world we all can get to #1 within seconds. In reality we are always somewhere in-between. The real question is how many levels can you improve your sheltering situation in a timely manner? Plus are you even aware of how to improve your situation? When it comes to tornado safety and shelter there are always better and worse places to be and you have to try to get to the best one you can to increase your odds of survival. If you have to put yourself in a worse situation to get to a better situation than that’s usually not a good idea. In those cases stay put and do the best you can with the situation you have available to you.

1. #1 Underground bunker, pre-built shelter, custom safe room or large bank vault. These will withstand even a monster EF-5 storm

2. #2 Basement, crawl space or other lowering inside a sturdy structure. The normally are safe in all instance but even here debris can collapse on you causing injury.

3. #3 Interior room with no windows with 2-3 walls between you and the outside in a strong framed structure. In almost all cases you will survive here with minimal injuries. Wearing a helmet will add in survivability.

4. #4 Interior room or bathroom on the lowest level in single story home or lighter constructed building. The building will likely sustain heavy damage but with a helmet or getting in a bathtub survivability is likely.

5. #5 Interior room on lowest level of a weak framed or strong manufactured home. Not a perfect situation but this may be the only choice and while injury is likely with head protection and anchoring survivability is possible. Especially in EF-0 to EF-2 storms.

6. #6 Strong, modern and heavy vehicle with seat belts and airbags trying to drive away from the path of the tornado. This is somewhat controversial but research has shown survivability is likely with modern crash cages and the safety features of modern vehicles. Convertibles or small cars are a no, no. This is not ideal but if you have time and in rural settings driving away can be an option. Especially if you are somewhere lower on this list. (source)

7. #7 Mobile home or weak manufactured home. These are mobile for a reason if a car or truck can tow your home than a 60-7mph wind can move it easily. The overwhelming majority of tornado deaths occur in manufactured homes. Get to a sturdy structure if at all possible but as a last resort interior room may save your life in weaker storms.

8. #8 In a ditch or low-lying area. This was something preached for years by safety officials and as a last resort can help. But water, lighting, wind and debris can still get you in these spots. Try to improve your situation if at all possible.

9. #9 Tents, temporary structures or picnic pavilions. In situations like camping, concerts or festivals get somewhere else fast. These structures provide little to no safety at all and often times the stakes and ropes become deadly missiles in even light winds.

10. #10 Out in the open, walking, running biking with nothing but you and the wind and debris. The worst possible situation to be in. You are betting off laying down or getting in a ditch. Which is far better than this situation. I hope you never find yourself in this situation.

 Other posts about that day:

http://tornatrix.net/?p=1961

http://digitalmeteorologist.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/storm-chasers-killed-in-el-reno-tornado/

http://www.npr.org/2013/06/01/187876338/no-universal-best-practice-to-save-yourself-from-tornadoes

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/06/01/the-night-that-should-change-tornado-actions-and-storm-chasing-forever/

http://stormhighway.com/blog2013/may3113a.shtml

  • Grace Blanshan

    We’re thinking about making a closet under our stairs. Would this be “our best bet” in a PDS? We don’t have any interior rooms, our lower bathroom has an outside wall…

    • wxbrad

      Grace, that’s very similar to my safe spot. It’s closet under my stairs we use for storage right now. Good choice.

  • thewadsworth@gmail.com

    Thanks for your thoughts on this horrible situation. These guys were safe and I loved all the past shows with Tim where he would put out his orange cone and RUN RUN back to the vehicle, way in advance of the storm. I am still in shock over the loss of these three people. I think we need more shelters and perhaps all mobile home parks should be required to have one and also google maps could one day show public locations of buildings deemed safe for underground shelter. I have a friend who asked my about the house they are moving to, built in 1845, and where to shelter there. There are no stairs. I hope they build an underground shelter of some sort. We have good lead times, we just need places for peeps to go (that allow pets, too!).

  • Paul

    I agree, with one addage: There needs to a preventative measure taken as to where we can “chase”. I believe that It should be limited to local forecast areas, and that each mobile spotter should be encouraged to develop a relationship with that office. Taking “chasecations” is all well and good, but it is leading to unsafe conditions as far as one of the golden rules, which is escape routes. What we do is important, and I believe that a series of good sit downs is in order to get a discussion going on how we can all improve everyone’s safety.

    • wxbrad

      Good ideas for sure Paul.

  • Pingback: Storm Chaser Tim Samaras Last Tweet before Killed by Oklahoma Tornado « Kelly Stream Weather

  • Pingback: Tornado Quest “Gee-O-Science” Links for June 1-8, 2013 | Welcome To Tornado Quest