Extreme Weather Moments: Oklahoma’s Tornado Zone

From hurricane landfalls to tornado chasing, our meteorologists have experienced weather phenomena that truly show the danger, beauty and force of the natural world. In this recurring blog series, we tell real weather stories from their unique perspectives.

In this edition, our technical meteorologist Bryan Putnam shares his on-the-ground experience — the sights, sounds and smells — of tornado-chasing near Oklahoma City in one of the worst seasons on record.

Extreme weather is a more popular topic recently. Cell phones have put a camera in everyone’s hands to document events across the country in real time. For tornadoes, there are no more grainy video tapes the day after from a backyard; the news hits Twitter, YouTube and Facebook within minutes and everyone across the country can get a glimpse of life in Tornado Alley.

For the general public these moments come and go. But for those that live there, it’s a way of life. I left Colorado to pursue my degree in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma not only because it held one of the nation’s top programs; it afforded me the opportunity to experience weather phenomena I had seen on National Geographic specials as a kid. What I was not prepared for was the rush of being in the path of a tornado.

May 24, 2011, was one of the more volatile days the Oklahoma City region had ever seen — and easily the scariest day I have experienced.

Severe weather patterns in Oklahoma are roughly similar: Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico advances northward, dry air from the desert Southwest advances eastward, and upper level cold air from Canada and the Rocky Mountains overspreads the plains from the north and west, providing the energy and trigger mechanisms to develop storms. The local weather service and news stations forecast this potential severity days in advance, and everyone understands what is coming. People share the warnings on Facebook and Twitter to make sure their friends and families know and clean out their storm shelters.

On this day, though, the news and social media came with more specific warnings. Typical meteorological terms, such as CAPE (a measure of the energy in the atmosphere to produce storms), were at the top of the charts. This was not about just being weather-aware; it was about sheltering in place and closing schools early. The National Weather Service even issued an unprecedented alert to stay off the interstates.

Tornado forecast

I headed out with some friends to see the storms as they formed just to the west of Oklahoma City and moved east. I’d seen storms and tornadoes before, but never like this. We went from storm to storm, each with violent tornadoes. One was a half-mile wide, one had vortices that danced across the prairie, and another was tall and slender but still grinding up the ground. The air was thick with the smell of wood as hundreds of trees were shredded. The sounds of news helicopters followed us as we chased the storms. Tornado in Oklahoma

As one of the storms moved towards Norman, where the University of Oklahoma is located, our fear grew substantially more intense. My friend’s brother, at the University Union at the time, reported that officials had opened all the basements and were quickly ushering students underground. On the radio, the news stations interrupted regular programming with meteorologists calling out landmarks in the storm’s path — like the university’s Lloyd Noble Center arena. That’s when the chills hit.

weather forecaster

Fortunately, most of the tornadoes dissipated before reaching the more densely populated Oklahoma City metro area and the university. But that was after several people lost their lives and the damage swath covered smaller towns to the west of the city.

With all this advanced knowledge about when and where storms may happen, a big chunk of what’s missing is what to do in the aftermath. The residents are amazing at preparing for and dealing with the events as they happen, as well as coping with the scale of destruction and moving forward in the early days after the event. But the path forward becomes more difficult as the long-term impacts of financial loss due to property damage become reality.

Writer Bio

Dr. Bryan Putnam is a technical meteorologist at Athenium Analytics. His areas of expertise include severe convective storms, polarimetric radar and numerical modeling. His current focus is on DexterHail and BeaconHurricane. He is originally from Castle Rock, Colo., and holds a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. He completed several research projects to improve forecasts of severe storm structure, movement and precipitation using advanced model precipitation methods and weather radar. When he’s not busy investigating the latest advancements in weather observation and prediction, he enjoys watching OU football, running, playing Nintendo games and relaxing watching the latest new show with his cats, Rocky and Ozark.

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