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Lessons from El Reno Tornado Tragedy (perils of tornado-chasing traffic jams – East Coast tropical depression/soaker by late week?)

“…If anything, the events of Friday evening demonstrate storm chasers need to back off. For too long, too many chasers – both professional and amateur – have been crossing the line…” – excerpt of a post from Washington Post meteorologist Jason Samenow. Story below. Tweet above from a chronology from Digital Meteorologist, which has more on Friday evening’s tornado tragedy.


The Wrong Message



At least 9 people were killed in Friday evening’s Oklahoma City EF-3 tornado, including 3 professional tornado researchers. Unlike amateur chasers out searching for a cheap thrill Tim Samaras was pushing the envelope as a scientist. Previous projects included planting “turtles” in the path of tornadoes to get video, wind and pressure information.



On Friday one of the local OKC TV weathermen encouraged viewers to get into their cars and try to drive away. The result? Gridlock. Massive traffic jams. Tim, his son and a third tornado intercept professional were caught in a deadly logjam of cars, unable to escape to safety as the tornado took a sudden 45-degree turn.



Word to the wise: if you’re already home and a Tornado Warning is issued stay home! Otherwise you’re just a sitting duck.



A tragic story.



There’s a Frost Advisory just northeast of MSP this morning, more evidence of chilly air unusually far south with an atmospheric tug of war playing out directly overhead. This will mean more showery rains Tuesday & Wednesday; another slug of rain late Saturday & Sunday. If it’s any consolation (doubtful) it may be too cool for anything severe.



The atmosphere still thinks it’s May 3.



* Image upper left from RadarScope app shows location of storm chasers in relation to El Reno tornado. Image upper right shows traffic jam on I-35 south of Oklahoma City, courtesy of KWTV.




A Few Thoughts About Tornado Chasing. Things have really gotten out of control. This has been an accident waiting to happen for the better part of 20 years now. On some level I blame the movie “Twister”, which glamorized tornado research and inspired countless hundreds (thousands) of amateurs to try their hand at a tornado intercept, with visions of great video and local or national TV weather-glory. Ironic, since I helped with special effects with “Twister” and even had a line in the movie. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I was in Oklahoma on 3 separate occasions, intercepting tornadic storms with NSSL, the National Severe Storms Lab. Every time I went down to Oklahoma I was struck by the number of people tagging along. Often scores, even hundreds of chasers would converge on the same cell by late afternoon. It’s a free country – you’re obviously free to drive when and where you want, and I certainly don’t want that to change, but something has to be done to avoid another tragedy like the one that killed 9 motorists Friday evening, including 3 professional tornado researchers Tim Samaras, his son, and intercept partner.



They weren’t out there to videotape the tornado and try to sell it to KFOR-TV or The Weather Channel. They were conducting research, and yet the sheer number of chasers converging on the El Reno supercell (apparently) made it impossible to get away from an EF-3 erratic tornado in time. I honestly don’t know what the solution is here, but one would hope common sense would apply. With the May 20 EF-5 which leveled much of Moore, one of the local TV meteorologists warned local residents that, without a basement or storm shelter, the tornado was “unsurvivable” – he told them to get into their vehicle and try to drive away before the tornado struck. That only makes sense if you have HOURS of lead time, which just isn’t realistic with the state of tornado detection and warning, when the average lead-time is closer to 13-15 minutes.



If you had 10 minutes and you were the ONLY one trying to get out of Dodge, maybe. Just maybe. But the problem is this: tens of thousands of local residents heard the same admonition, and if everyone is trying to get onto the interstate to drive away from a tornadic supercell, the result will most likely be gridlock, making you and your family sitting ducks. A bad idea. If you’re home, stay home. Get into your tub (with bike or football helmets, if you have them) and try to ride out the tornado on the ground floor, away from outer walls and windows. Statistically that’s still safer than getting into a car or truck and trying to zip down the highway out ahead of a tornado. Friday evening’s multiple fatalities proved it.



The Day That Should Change Tornado Actions And Storm Chasing Forever. Here is a perspective I trust and respect, an excerpt of some thoughts from Washington Post meteorologist Jason Samenow: “…There is reason to believe some of these motorists were intentionally trying to outrun these storms and weren’t just commuting home or running errands, unaware. Recently, in the wake of the tragedy in Moore, Okla., some media outlets told the story of residents who successfully eluded the massive tornado by driving out of town. CNN even quoted an “expert” who encouraged this practice. “With the good lead time, I’d tell people to get in their automobile and go 90 degrees from that perceived path,” Ed Bates, an architect who designs buildings that incorporate storm shelters told CNN. “It’s manageable and easy to do — even in a city environment.” But it’s not easy to flee a storm if the tornado is not visible because it is wrapped in rain and/or traffic is at a standstill…”

Photo credit above: “Overturned semitrailer from El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013.” (Omaha World-Herald, Chris Machian/Associated Press).



Lesson From Friday Storm Deaths: When Weather Is Bad, Stay Home. Amen. I couldn’t agree more with Matt Daniel’s post at; here’s an excerpt: “…A big and concering problem about the May 31, 2013 storms in Oklahoma was that at least one local television station in the Oklahoma City area, while reporting that weather was imminent, mentioned that going underground or leaving your house was the best way to survive the storm. This is wrong. When tornados are imminent, going to your vehicle and driving on the roads is the last thing you should do. In my post from Friday afternoon – before the storms broke – I described in detail the possibility of severe weather for Friday evening. Included in the post was a graphic from the Norman, Oklahoma National Weather Service Office via twitter...” (excerpt above).

* Andy Revkin has a write-up on the El Reno Tornado disaster in the New York Times here.



* USA Today questions the role of amateur tornado chasers in this Sunday article.



About Tim Samaras. I knew Tim – he was a super-smart tornado researcher with a real passion for learning more about how and why these storms form, strengthen and die off, why some go on to become EF-4+ monsters, while most fizzle. He was a kind man, a family man. His 25 year old son died by his side. The meteorological community feels a real sense of loss; I find it amazing, and more than a bit humbling, that a seasoned professional was killed by a tornado. These guys know how to avoid trouble, how to get out of the way and always keep a safe buffer. All I can think is that traffic prevented Tim from moving out of harm’s way. Here’s a YouTube retrospective of Tim Samaras’s life.


Tornado Chasing: Still Not a “Sport”. Some days you chase the tornado, other days the tornado changes direction and chases you. The Friday evening El Reno multi-vortex tornado was highly erratic, and this caught storm chasers, professionals and amateurs, off-guard. Here’s an excerpt of a first-hand account from Dan Robinson at “I was nearly run over by the El Reno violent wedge tornado as it made a sudden 45-degree turn to the northeast. I had been on it from birth. It had been moving slowly east-southeast, and I drove east to try to get a backlit view of it. It suddenly turned northeastward and began moving over the road. I floored it to escape, but my car would only go 40mph tops with the strong headwinds. I escaped the tornado only to be struck by a powerful inflow jet filled with golfball-sized hailstones. This broke my back window and rearview mirror, cracked my laptop screen and nearly ripped my wiper blades off. When this happened, I was outside the car, and throught that the tornado had turned again or expanded on top of me. I ran and dove into the ditch. The wind pulled off one of my shoes and the lens hood from my video camera. As I ran, I was struck by several large wind-driven hailstones and sustained several bruises and cuts, the worst to my left eyelid. Below are a few video captures of the tornado. The start of the tornado exhibited wild multiple vortices. The most rapid motion I’ve ever seen. I had to do a double-take when reviewing the video that it wasn’t fast-forwarded...”

Unrecognizable. I’m not 100% certain, but I have a strong hunch this is the vehicle that Tim Samaras, his son and chase partner were driving when they were killed by the EF-3 El Reno tornado, that changed direction suddenly. If this doesn’t make you shudder, and reconsider the wisdom of getting close to tornadoes, I’m not sure what will. Image courtesy of CNN.

Not Again. Our in-house TPO algorithm (Tornado Potential Outlook) shows another significant risk of tornadoes for Oklahoma Tuesday afternoon and evening. I hope it’s wrong.


Minnesota: One Of The Safer States In The USA For Billion Dollar Weather Disasters. Yes, our weather can be annoying, at times damaging, even deadly, but everything is relative. I can’t remember the last time we were a “green state”, as in relative safety. The Washington Post has more details here.


NOAA Kills Agency-Wide Furlough Proposal. Some good news for National Weather Service employees (and by extention, the rest of us as well) from The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang: “Following the recent tornado outbreaks in the Plains, NOAA faced strong Congressional pressure not to furlough National Weather Service employees (as a cost savings measure in response to the budget sequester). The agency gave in late Friday. In an email to staff, NOAA acting administrator Kathryn Sullivan said the agency was cancelling the furlough plan for the entire organization, which includes the National Weather Service…”

Where Are We Living Again? I had to do a double-take when I saw the Frost Advisory posted for northeastern MN and much of northern WI for early this morning. Are you kidding me? We’re still witnessing a 4-6 week lag in the weather; as far as the atmosphere is concerned it’s the last week of April or first week of May.

More Blobs. A southward-sagging jet stream, about 300-500 miles farther south than average, is bringing unusually chilly Canadian air into northern tier states. Storms are most likely to spin up along the boundary separating hot from cool, so as long as that huge north-south contrast is hovering nearby, with the core of the jet stream howling almost directly overhead, it’s going to stay wet. 84 hour NAM loop courtesy of NOAA.

Timing The Puddles. All the models pull in some .5 to 1″ rainfall amounts Tuesday and Wednesday, then a dry stretch most of Thursday, Friday and the first half of Saturday before more showers and T-storms slosh in; right now Sunday appears to be the wetter day of the weekend.

East Coast Tropical Depression? NHC only attaches a 20% risk of strengthening to tropical storm strength, but a moisture-laden depression or tropical wave will push flooding rains into Florida Thursday; the storm then pushing right up the east coast the end of the week, possibly soaking New York, Providence and Boston by Saturday. Stay tuned. ECMWF guidance above courtesy of WSI.

* photo above taken at the Guthrie Theater in the Twin Cities Sunday evening, where my wife and I took in “Primrose Path”, which was excellent. That’s me, pretending to have culture.



Climate Stories…



Coming Off Fossil Fuels Is Akin To Quitting Smoking – Only Harder. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian: “…The idea that society is hooked on fossil fuels – addicted to the carbon compounds that underwrite everything from the plastic in our toothbrushes to the petrol in our cars – is nothing new. But a new paper by Steven Suranovic, an academic at the George Washington University, takes the analogy one step further. Comparing societal dependence on fossil fuels to individual addiction to tobacco using a model derived from behavioural economics, Suranovic argues that unhitching ourselves from coal, oil and gas will be very much like coming off the cigarettes – but harder...”

Photo credit above: “Thai students urge people to quit smoking during 2001 World No-smoking day parade. Steven Suranovic has compared societal dependence on fossil fuels to individual addiction to tobacco.” Photograph: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/EPA.



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Welcome to the WeatherNation blog. Every day I sift through hundreds of stories, maps, graphics and meteorological web sites, trying to capture some of the most interesting weather nuggets, the stories behind the forecast. I’ll link to stories and share some of the web sites I use. I’m still passionate about the weather, have been ever since Tropical Storm Agnes flooded my home in Lancaster, PA in 1972. I’ve started 5 weather-related companies. “EarthWatch” created the world’s first 3-D weather graphics for TV stations – Steven Spielberg used our software in “Jurassic Park” and “Twister”. My last company, “Digital Cyclone”, personalized weather for cell phones. “My-Cast” was launched in 2001 and is still going strong on iPhone, Android and Blackberry. I sold DCI to Garmin in 2007 so I could focus on my latest venture: WeatherNation. I also write a daily weather column for The Star Tribune And if you’re on Twitter, you’ll find me @pdouglasweather

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