by Colt Forney
The morning of May 20th, 2013 began like any other chase day for me, feeling tired from staying up too late looking at the models and not being able to sleep as I was excited for the upcoming chase. Lauren and I were especially tired on this particular day due to having chased non-stop the previous four days. On May 16th and 17th, we were up in western South Dakota, then drove practically all night to reach central Kansas for May 18th, catching the Rozel, KS tornadoes. We then chased southern Kansas on May 19th, also catching a couple brief tornadoes that day before heading south to stay the night in Norman, OK for the next day’s chase. Total combined sleep from these four days equaled just over twelve hours – adrenaline and excitement can go a long way as a natural sleep inhibitor.
I have chased in central Oklahoma many times since the spring of 2009 when I moved there to attend the University of Oklahoma. I’ve chased many “high-end” days here as well. By “high-end”, I mean chase days with the parameters and atmospheric conditions required for long track tornadoes and outbreaks. May 20th wasn’t any different. Luckily, none of these previous chases ever led me into the Oklahoma City metro, nor had any significant tornadoes affected the OKC metro since I began chasing in Oklahoma. There were some close calls with strong tornadoes in 2010 and 2011, and a very weak tornado moved through the center of Norman in 2012, but overall there had been nothing significant in the metro since Moore was struck in 2003.
In 2010, when strong tornadoes just missed Norman and Moore, I was chasing a different storm in northwest Oklahoma. In 2011, I caught the tail end of the Goldsby tornado after passing through the metro, but that was before the storms had gotten too close. Again, in 2012, when Norman was hit by a tornado, I was on a separate storm in the southwest part of the state. While the thought of the OKC metro taking a direct hit from a devastating tornado was always in the back of my mind, and I knew it would eventually happen again, I’d luckily avoided that situation. On May 20th, however, that scenario would finally play out.
When I thought about this scenario I knew people would be panicking, especially if the tornado was clearly visible coming into the city. As seems logical, I thought traffic would be hectic as people would be trying to flee if they could, but to what extent this would be a problem or how clogged the roads might become I wasn’t sure. I hoped I would never have to have to deal with this scenario, but if it occurred I planned on playing it “safe” and positioning farther away to possibly account for some traffic and still get out of the way if needed. This scenario is all good in your head, but is a completely different story when you’re dealing with it in real life.
We started the chase on May 20th by dropping south to Purcell, OK and waiting at a gas station just off I-35 for storms to develop. After about an hour of waiting, a storm started developing to our west and began organizing pretty quickly. We moved about 10 miles west to get a bit closer and wait for it to become more organized before truly committing to that storm. While we were monitoring the storm to our southwest, another storm had developed to our northwest and was also rapidly intensifying. At this point we had to choose which storm to go after. We made the decision to go back north to catch the northern storm as there appeared to be a surface boundary of some sort evident on radar earlier in the day, and the updraft was very crisp and rose in the sky like an atomic bomb.
We raced back to I-35 and went north with the base of the storm emerging from the haze to our west as we crossed the Canadian River. As we continued north on I-35, we could see a cone funnel through the haze to our west. Lauren was driving and made the decision to take Exit 116 (SW 19th St.) when she saw traffic backing up due to the hail core crossing the interstate a few miles to our north. As she exited the interstate we noticed cars stopping under the overpass and blocking traffic, a very dangerous thing to do, especially while a tornado is approaching.
By the time we stopped in a parking lot just east of the interstate, the tornado was now on the ground in the form of a stout stovepipe. We decided to head west for a better view, and by the time we were across the interstate, it had rapidly gown into a wedge. At the same time, the tornado sirens began to sound and people were stopping on the off-ramp to take a look.
At the intersection of SW 19th St. and Santa Fe, we decided that going further west seemed too dangerous, so we went south on S. Santa Fe Ave. and pulled off into the Southmoore H.S. parking lot. We had lost sight of the tornado due to rain and our view being obstructed by trees and houses after crossing the interstate, but could now see it emerge as a big rain-wrapped cone due west of us. Despite the sirens sounding, there wasn’t much traffic on the roads, perhaps because the tornado had been wrapped in rain and was just now coming into view over the trees and houses.
As the tornado approached it became less rain-wrapped and we could see how violent it was with debris starting to be visible around the tornado (it was about 4 miles west of us at this time). My heart sank as I knew this tornado wasn’t going to dissipate before entering town. Knowing how densely populated the area is, and how violent the tornado appeared, I knew there would be fatalities.
If the tornado stayed on its nearly due east course, we figured it would pass just north of our location so we stayed in the parking lot and continued to watch it approach. While the tornado was a couple miles away we could start to hear the roar, which was both incredible and terrifying. It was the loudest tornado roar any of us had ever heard and by the time we started to leave the parking lot, it was deafening, like being next to a big waterfall.
When we left the Southmoore parking lot, the tornado was about a half mile to our NNW. We were too close. Just as we had seen the tornado from the high school parking lot, many locals had now also seen it, and were now beginning to panic and flee south. We were delayed by traffic before we could pull onto Santa Fe Ave. and head south. Traffic was terrifyingly slow and very hectic with drivers cutting each other off and racing south in the northbound lanes. It was a very scary situation. Some drivers seemed so panicked by the tornado’s proximity and strong inflow winds that they froze and clogged up the lane. It was a miracle we didn’t get into a wreck.
When we reached SW 34th, we turned west and got away from most of the traffic, which was continuing south on Santa Fe. We then cut back north on Western Ave. to help with search and rescue. Once we got to the damage path it was total devastation. Houses, businesses, everything was destroyed – nothing more than a piles of rubble remained in the center of the damage path.
We noticed some children being helped out from what was left of a small strip mall and rushed in to assist. Other people were already there helping remove these children and several adults from the rubble. I was praying that I didn’t find anyone who had been killed. The task to get the last couple adults out and away from the rubble was even more rushed when we noticed a large natural gas leak gushing into the air not far from where people climbed from the debris. In all there were five children and three adults that were, for the most part, okay aside from some bruises and gashes here and there. We loaded them up in the back someone’s pickup and took off as fast as we could, praying the gas leak wouldn’t ignite. How those children and adults survived, I have no clue. They were crawling from rubble no more than 5 feet high with no underground shelter. We then continued south out of the damage path a few miles after fleeing the gas leak and pulled over to catch our breath and take in all that had just happened. We stayed out of the damage path after this so we wouldn’t be in the way of emergency personnel as they would be making their way in to the area soon.
The Moore tornado on May 20th was a very sobering experience and later that day it really began to sink in just how close to it we actually were and how a slight change in the tornado’s path could have been disastrous for us with traffic preventing a quick escape. Luckily, we were on the edge of town and the panicked people fleeing the tornado in traffic didn’t extend for miles.
Getting this close to a tornado of this magnitude is possible and “relatively safe” if you are out in the open countryside with no traffic and nice, quick, paved escape routes. On the other hand, in a densely populated urban area it can easily become a death trap due to people trying to flee the tornado and bringing roads to a standstill. We came out luckily this day. It was truly a wakeup call and we will approach chasing on days like this much differently in the future. This might mean trying to detour completely around the urban area and catching up with the storm on the other side. It might mean avoiding cities altogether. No tornado is worth dying for, and there will always be more of them to chase.