American Impressions, Chapter 38: Oklahoma
By now, tornadoes are literally everywhere, touching down in packs, ripping through the countryside and, as it will become apparent before long, through suburbs of Oklahoma City. The voices on the radio have become more desperate. “This cell is going to breed new tornadoes . . . Gary we’re a half mile south of the tornado, we’re getting wind gusts of 60 . . . It’s starting to come into the metro area.” And Gary England’s pleas: “It’s best if you are below ground level, mobile homes will not survive this, you need to be below ground, regular structures will not survive this.”
At that point I’m glad that I was never on the actual chase. Although I feel as if I were there, I am reconstructing the day’s events from watching the Probe’s video in Biddle’s living room, in early September, with Biddle’s explanations to help, and a weak drizzle outside.
”On this day,” Biddle says in retrospect, “I feel like I’m driving in the Daytona 500 because it’s constant driving, high stress all the time. We don’t stop until 14 tornadoes later.” The Probe made a decision early in the chase to stay clear of Oklahoma City, where traffic, congestion and other dangers would have made it impossible to gather data. It continues its mission southeast of the city, spotting one tornado after another, unaware yet of the momentous caliber—and death toll—of the day’s events. “Look at this just sitting there. It’s screaming down; it’s kicking into high gear, rapidly descending air. It’s going down right now,” Sharfenberg says. But the radio begins to tell the story from Oklahoma City. “There’s extreme damage, cars are flattened . . . They need a lot of help out here, Gary.”
The May 3 outbreak was one of the worst ever recorded in the Midwest, and certainly the most observed by chasers. The storm system traveled 80 miles over 20 hours, triggering 70 tornadoes across Oklahoma and southern Kansas, with winds of up to 260 mph. Nineteen tornadoes were triggered by a single supercell, including the most damaging one, the one Gary England warned Oklahomans about, which killed 38 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and caused more than $1 billion in damage. Five people died in Wichita, Kan., including a month-old boy.
It had been four months since the outbreak when Biddle took me in his El Camino through the area of Moore (an Oklahoma City suburb) most severely hit by the tornado. I’d never seen the aftermath of a tornado or a hurricane before. The Moore neighborhood, with its deserted lots marked by concrete slabs, its decapitated trees, its empty streets, and the shells of remaining houses—some of which had just a door or a fireplace or an errant wall where families once lived—looked one of two ways. You could see it as a subdivision that had just been messily laid out, ready for construction. Or as a likeness of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb, with one exception: The lawns in Moore were still green.
As we drove, Biddle belittled a prevalent belief, before the storm hit, that Oklahoma City was safe from tornadoes. Because the city hadn’t been hit in years, people assumed that it was protected by the usual superstitions—an Indian burial ground, a river’s particular bend. “Tornadoes don’t care about any rivers or hills,” Biddle said. “The physics are much grander than that.”
And so much more complicated that meteorologists still don’t know what provokes a tornado, although that’s what much of Norman’s scientific hub is about. It’s an odd community of pros who like nothing better than to talk about the weather. They don’t do anything about it beyond that. They can’t. No one has figured out how to nip a tornado off its supercell or divert a hurricane, nor is anyone foolish enough to try. But if weather forecasting was once a few degrees removed from reading tea leaves in clouds, Norman’s researchers are turning it into something distantly neighboring a science. In the end, all of them aim for a couple of things: To give as much warning as possible of an impending severe weather outbreak and to reduce the number of false alarms.
For now, and despite $4.5 billion invested by the federal government in 162 Doppler radars across the country, and another $2 billion in slated refinements, both propositions have as many advantages as disadvantages. Unquestionably, the combination of Doppler radar and weather spotters has reduced the number of tornado fatalities from an annual average of 200 before the 1950s to about 50 today. But just as Doppler has sharpened cloud-reading (it can tell the size and direction of rain drops, and will soon be able to tell the difference between hail, rain and snow, a critical component in detecting tornadoes or the potential for flash floods), it has allowed forecasters to multiply the number of storm warnings across the country from about 800 in 1987 to 2,592 in 1997. That year, 2,022 were false alarms, which induce a dangerous degree of complacency.
The interpretation of dangerous weather has become as tricky as medicine’s advances in genetics: Doctors can now detect the possibility of cancer in a patient, but at what point should they tell? Storms create a similar quandary on a different scale. Mesocyclones will produce tornadoes only 10 percent to 20 percent of the time, but once one is detected, at what point does the National Weather Service send out a warning and risk more complacency if it proves to be a false alarm? I never thought that weather could be a subject for ethicists. In Norman, it can seem like it is the most critical thing on earth. And of course, in some ways, it is.
Mediterranean weather, as I remember it, is a back-and-forth of amiable moods that never know extremes. It’s the Middle East’s only claim to temperance. In America, and on the Great Plains in particular, weather is a supernatural force of such violence and irascibility that I can’t help seeing it as the nation’s closest approximation of war on domestic soil—of something senseless, inexplicable, and when the human toll is accounted for, unjust. At the same time, bad weather is the most native American phenomenon of all. Its claim to the land is older than any human’s. Besides, a storm is nothing more than nature’s attempt to restore balance in the air. We happen to have frequently unbalanced air which, for people below, turns weather into the common enemy.
Death and destruction aside, the Plains cope admirably. Sadness and sorrow follow in the wake of terrible storms, as in the days following May 3, but defeat is hard to detect. I have no doubt, either, that the overwhelmingly quick and salutary response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 9, 1995, which killed 168 people, was in part conditioned by the community’s familiarity with wrath beyond its control. It is no wonder that the wordiest plaque at the memorial now being built in place of the building is devoted to the “First Responder Teams” who did so much to ease the consequences of the bombing.
Weather is not a terrorist act, nor is it even “good” or “bad.” But it brings out the same “First Responder Teams” on the scenes of its more Jovian outbreaks. That their work is being made less and less necessary by those pre-responder teams—the storm-chasers—is a story that should one day earn its own plaque. They could nail it on the wall cloud of a threatening supercell. They’ll figure out a way.
OKLAHOMA IN BRIEF
Total area: 69,903 sq. miles (rank: 20)
Population (1997): 3,317,091 (rank: 27)
State capital: Oklahoma City
Economy: Manufacturing, minerals, agriculture, services.
Nickname & Motto: Sooner State; Labor conquers all things.
Entered union: Nov. 16, 1907 (46 th).
Notable facts: Norman, Oklahoma’s hub of weather scientists is all gathered under the umbrella of the Oklahoma Weather Center. A hulk of a red-bricked building called Sarkeys Energy Center houses the University of Oklahoma’s top-rated School of Meteorology, the College of Geosciences, the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies. A few miles away, an expanse of flat land bubbling with the white spheres of radars is the site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center, which issues all the nation’s severe weather watches (minus Alaska and Hawaii), of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, whose researchers develop the prediction center’s tools (such as the Doppler radar, developed in Norman between the late 1960s and early 80s), and of a regional National Weather Service station. Norman is also home to Charles Edwards’ Cloud 9 Tours which, for $2,000 per individual, will take you on a two-week storm chase anywhere clouds call.
Oklahoma in quotes: “This is tornado number six or something; it’s about three miles to our east. Minco’s just about to get hit it looks like, or being hit. And as we’re recording, we’ve heard of what sounds like extreme tornado damage near Crossroads Mall with that tornado that’s gone through Oklahoma City. Is this the tornado crossing the road? (This is an entirely different tornado). I think it is. It’s moving fast. Or is it two of them? No, it’s one. Large tornado crossing Minco now. Rapid upward motion . . . Yup yup yup. Coming down right now, another major tornado coming down just south, just south. OK, we’re in tornado festival now, tornado number 7. Oh, damn it, can’t see it. The condensation hasn’t come to the ground yet, I don’t see a good debris cloud yet . . . This is the kind of day that chasers could get killed, if they haven’t already. We’re literally going to have to watch the video to know how many tornadoes we’ve seen. I don’t think we’ll know for months.”—Storm-chasers’ live reaction to the May 3, 1999, outbreak around Oklahoma City.
Gary England, the KWTV meteorologist in Oklahoma City, wrote a lively autobiographical account of his years under the Oklahoma weather. His “Weathering the Storm: Tornadoes, Television and Turmoil” (University of Oklahoma Press) is available in paperback for $16.95.
”Isaac’s Storm,” by Erik Larson (Crown, $25), is a compelling account of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, in September 1900.
* Storm Prediction Center: www.spc.noaa.gov
* National Severe Storms Laboratory: www.nssl.noaa.gov
* Storm Track, home page of storm chasers: www.storm-track.com
* Matt Biddle’s Moderate Risk home page: rossby.ou.edu/~mbiddle/modrisk.html