May 8, 2003

Just four days after numerous tornadoes devastated parts of eastern Kansas, western Missouri, and northeastern Oklahoma, it appeared these same areas would be under the gun again today. A setup very similar to Sunday was shaping up across the Plains, with a strong surface low moving across Kansas and a dryline punching through Kansas and Oklahoma. This morning, the SPC had northeastern Kansas under a high risk, but had central Oklahoma under a slight risk. The RUC had the dryline mixing into eastern Oklahoma by late afternoon, yet with the 12z OUN sounding indicating the moist layer up to 800mb I had doubts the dryline would mix that far east. I also noticed that enhanced cumulus were already beginning to build in northern Texas by 10am. Therefore I was expecting there might be storms not far from Norman this afternoon, so I packed all of my cameras, atlases, and a change of clothes into my car in the event I would need to embark on an urgent chase after getting off work.

I headed to work at 11:30am, with a stratus overcast over Norman showing a few hints of thinning and breaking up. Although the stratus thinned by early afternoon, the sun had a tough time making its presence felt due to a thick cirrostratus overcast. A thick haze caused by high humidity (dewpoints in the low to mid 70's) and smoke of Central American origin also dimmed the sun, and really cut down on the visibility. Still, I took periodic glances out the window to watch what the sky and the winds were doing. By 4pm, I noticed that the skies were beginning to darken slightly and winds were backing from a southerly to a southeasterly direction. At 4:45pm, one of my coworkers told me it was fixing to rain, and asked me if my car windows were rolled up. Upon going outside to see if my windows were rolled up, I took a look to the northwest, and could barely make out a huge backsheared anvil and vertical updraft tower in that direction. Upon this observation, I feared that a tornadic storm was approaching the Oklahoma City metro area. I did not want to chase this storm during rush hour in a major metropolitan area, so I began thinking about how I would intercept this storm east of the area once my shift ended.

My shift ended at 5pm, so I rushed out to my car to listen for radio reports. At the time I turned on my radio, NOAA Wx Radio was broadcasting a live nowcast - saying that a tornado was passing over I-35 in Moore. I looked towards my north but all I could see was a whitish haze. I could not even see any evidence of the parent supercell, even though it was just 9 miles to my north at the time. After hastily changing clothes in the car, I raced over to a nearby gas station to fill up my tank. I still could not see any signs of the storm, in fact the only clue I had a tornadic storm was nearby were the strong southerly inflow winds gusting to about 40 mph. Humidity was intense as well, as I measured a temp/dewpoint of 86/76 at the gas station. After washing off some drops of gas which had blown on to my arm from the strong winds, I got into my car to figure out how to intercept this storm. I had heard live reports on both the Wx Radio and commercial radio that the storm had crossed I-35 and was heading to I-240, and fearing these roads would be closed I did not want to take these roads to catch up with the storm. So I battled the Norman traffic and eventually picked up Highway 9 southeast of town, then took Hwy 9 east to Hwy 102, which I took north to I-40. In this process I had lost a lot of ground to the storm, which continued to race northeastward away from me. I blasted east on I-40 in hopes of catching up with the storm. I think I may have come close to catching up with it near Prague, but I couldn't really tell as all I could see was a hazy darkness to my north. When I got to Okemah I conceded to the poor visibility, and decided to turn around and head back to Norman. Once back home, I spent the rest of the evening watching the incredible images the local TV stations captured of the storm.

The tornado which struck Moore today was the third tornado to strike the city in 5 years - Moore was also hit on Oct 4, 1998 and May 3, 1999. Today's tornado crossed I-35 about 1/4 to 1/2 mile south of where the 1999 tornado crossed. This tornado continued into southeast parts of Oklahoma City, where it did significant damage to the General Motors plant, and then went into Choctaw before dissipating. The tornado travelled about 20 miles through mostly heavily populated areas, and at times did F3 damage. Despite this, there were no known deaths directly attributable to this tornado. Considering that the tornado was difficult to see and was moving at speeds of about 40 mph, this is amazing. The National Weather Service (NWS), Storm Prediction Center (SPC), and local media deserve all the credit for the low casualty total. The NWS and SPC did an excellent job of nailing the potential for long lived, damaging tornadoes for central Oklahoma more than 2 hours ahead of the event, and the local media did an equally great job of promptly informing the public of this possibility. The NWS and local TV stations performed beautifully in tandem during the warning process - giving the public nonstop, up to the minute details on the storm from its developing stages southwest of OKC to its dissipation southwest of Tulsa. The local TV stations and radio stations are to be commended for suspending all regular programming to relay this information to the public - several radio stations simulcasted KWTV-9's live coverage as the tornado went through the OKC area.

Today's chase gets no ranking out of respect for all those who suffered losses during today's event. Although it is a little annoying to continuously miss tornadoes due to bad visibility, bad road networks, and having to work well into the afternoon - my complaints don't really seem all that important compared to those who won't have a place to sleep or a place to work for a while. The company for which I am employed owns 7 restaurants in the OKC area - and its restaurant in Moore suffered $250,000 in damage and will be closed indefinitely. This is going to be quite a loss in revenue for the company, and several of my co-workers will be directly impacted by this as their spouses/roommates worked at the Moore restaurant.

Total Mileage: 159 miles
Total Driving Time: 2 hours, 38 minutes

Back to Chase Summaries

Back to Jeff's Virtual Cyclone Cellar