Saturday, June 15, 2013

Weather World War III

Hello friends.  I am not going to lie, I've been postponing this blog post for a while.  I know I needed some time to take a break from the craziness and ingest the 2 most intense weeks of my life.
The anvil of a killer storm. May 31, 2013.

Serene start of a deadly day.
I have very mixed emotions about the last 2 weeks in May in Oklahoma.  Emotions including:
Sorrow - Oklahoma faced immense tragedy.  My heart aches for all the people impacted by these storms.
Helplessness - Of not being able to do more.  I am struggling with the thought that I watched tornadoes killing people.
Anger - Towards people quick to criticize...everything.
Hope - For rebuilding and for change. New tornado regulations and requirement of storm shelters, especially in schools.
Excitement - From running on adrenaline for 2 weeks straight.  The May 19 Shawnee tornado was the closest I had ever been to a violent tornado.  Next, I witnessed the horrific and deadly Moore EF-5.  Finally, I got too close to the widest tornado on record.

I wonder, why did God put me here in this space and time to witness such historic and catastrophic times? I know it can't be a coincidence.  I do know that I was meant to be here for a reason...but that reason remains unknown.  I'd like to think that part of the reason is to help keep Oklahomans safe.  I pray that I can join in the catalyst for change in tornado safety precautions to save more lives in the future when inevitably more violent tornadoes strike.
The Storm Prediction Center received 11 tornado reports in Oklahoma.
May 31, 2013

May 31st was like deja vu.  Once Oklahoma faced a 3-day streak of severe weather.  May 18-20 proved deadliest on day 3 and it happened again May 29-31.  Thankfully, this tornado did not hit a majorly populated city, however, 21 lives were still lost mainly due to serious flash flooding.
Central OK received up to 8" of rain leading to deadly flash flooding.

As meteorologists we use several forecast tools to predict the potential severity of the weather.  One of the indices is the "Significant Tornado Parameter."  I won't go into nerdy detail but basically, I have never seen this index so high before.  As you can see, there is a bullseye with 11.  Just as a comparison, I saw the number as high as 8 for the Moore tornado day.  In other words, meteorologists across the state knew just how bad May 31st could be.  For this reason the SPC issued a moderate risk and a PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) Tornado Watch.  I commend the National Weather Service in Norman for putting out urgent wording and stressing tornado safety in advance of storm development.
Significant Tornado Parameters were OFF THE CHARTS.

In a way, I would argue May 31st to be more dangerous than May 20th.  I am not diminishing the fact that the Newcastle/Moore tornado was a tragedy. Hands down, it was a horrific tragedy.  However, May 31 impacted a greater area, the storms were making erratic movements and it seemed like nearly every storm was turning tornadic.  When I was on the Mizzou Storm Chase team, we would not chase high risk days for this reason.  The storms were highly dangerous to chase.

Storm Chasing in Question With the Loss of A Legend
Storm Chaser locations. Scary reality.

Many people have asked why storm chase?  Storm chasing is necessary to provide "ground truth." Radar can only give us so much information.  Storm chasers can tell whether or not there is a tornado on the ground and if it is causing damage, the tornado's exact location and the tornado's intensity.  Select storm chasers further tornado research. I am not about to jump into a hot controversy but I do agree that discussions need to be made about storm chasing safety.  You are probably thinking...who are you, Emily, to be talking about this since you were so close to the El Reno tornado?  That is valid.  However, before you judge I would like to clarify that photojournalist Kevin Josefy and I worked hard to make sure we had a safe distance from the tornado and had appropriate escape routes. If you watched our raw video from the day, you can hear us discussing several ways to get out of the way should the tornado change directions.
Rapid-scan X-band Polarimetric Mobile Radar data from OU measured winds to 296 mph and a width of 2.6 miles, the widest tornado on record.

Tim Samaras and his "Turtle Probe."
Not only did the tornado change directions but it did it quickly and jumped in intensity.  According to OU mobile radar data, the tornado went from a 1 mile wide to 2.6 mile wide (new record) tornado in a matter of 30 seconds.  Unfortunately, this drastic change caused the deaths of Tim Samaras, his son Paul and colleague Carl Young.  The news of their deaths was a complete shock.  A shock personally and a shock to the entire meteorological community.  I had the honor of meeting Tim Samaras in college while attending the National Storm Chaser's Convention.  Tim is no ordinary storm chaser, he is a pioneer in the field.  On June 24, 2003 Tim Samaras and his team successfully placed one of his "Turtle Probes" (see pic) successfully in front of an F4 tornado in Manchester, Tornado.  The probe captured a 100 mb pressure drop in 10 seconds...the lowest pressure drop ever recorded.  He also placed a "Turtle Probe" with 360 degree camera angles and showed it for the first time at the chaser convention I attended.  You could hear a pin drop as all of us storm nuts watched in awe.  My thoughts and prayers go out to the Samaras and Young families and friends.

The fact that Tim died really shook me to the core.  His death reminds us that storm chasing is inherently dangerous and there is an element of unpredictability with tornadoes.  It made me realize how blessed I was to still be alive after my close call on May 31st.


A big thank you to my dear college friend and storm chase buddy, Willie Gilmore, for taking the time to analyze Kevin & my location in respect to the tornado's location.  Willie works for the National Weather Service in Little Rock, Arkansas and has access to archived radar data.  If you watch the video I posted above, this is the location when we are backing up and our back window gets blown out.  I had a visual of the tornado to my southeast and then it turns and crosses in front of us.  This is when the tornado intensified.  Tim Samaras' vehicle was found 2 miles down the road we were backing up on.  

Was I in the tornado? NO.  Was I too close? Yup.
The winds were likely caused from either an enhanced Rear Flank Downdraft (RFD) or strong inflow jet.  But if you think about basic physics, a low pressure center that causes a tornado to increase from a mile wide to 2.6 miles wide in 30 seconds is going to trigger a strong influx wind.  The combo of the deepening low pressure center and drastic change in direction whipped the wind around and blew out our back window.  While backing up I lightly hit the guard rail (oops) and it knocked down our dash cam.  The combo of confusion about us being in the tornado and the camera going black made it seem like we died.  This video clip broadcast nationally on CNN, The Weather Channel and MSNBC and freaked out my friends and family in Chicago and Oklahoma.  We were OKAY! But thank you for the concern.

Now What?

Thank God storm season is over.  But until next spring many discussions need to be made.  My personal opinion is that everyone should have a certified storm shelter.  It can cost thousands of dollars but can you really put a price tag on your and your family's lives?  Perhaps neighbors can split the cost and share a storm shelter.  Regardless, we all need to have safety plans in place because another violent tornado will hit Oklahoma.  I hope government officials can work together to put shelters in schools.  It's about time.  

In response to negative press about my station, all I can say is that I support the 4Warn Storm team and I want to stress that it is our goal to SAVE LIVES.  No we are not trying to freak people out or get the best video...it's all about SAVING LIVES. That's it.

On a positive note, I am amazed by the spirit of Oklahoma.  I consider myself an Oklahoman now and couldn't be prouder of the attitude and giving nature of this state.  I tell friends from Chicago how amazing it is after such a tragic time that storm survivors give ME a hug to thank me for storm coverage.  I should give all the storm survivors a hug for being so strong.  The sense of hope and resiliency from tornado victims is inspiring. Thank you to everyone that has donated time and or money to the clean up efforts.  There will be many months of clean up ahead and we have to stay strong.  Oklahoma strong. God bless.



13 comments:

  1. Thank you for your blog. I enjoy watching you on News 4.

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  2. Dang...scary stuff, plus Chicagoland nearly got a tornado the other day. So glad it's over. Oklahoma City has a large renter population and we have to figure how much our lives cost.

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  3. Emily, you are an amazing young lady, and thank you for everything you do! You are genuine and true to life. No matter what was said, you did an excellent job, and should be commended for your hard work, not ridiculed! You are only human, and man, I don't think I would of handled it as well as you did. Keep up the fantastic work, and you have two big fans at our household...you ROCK !!

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  4. Your one brave lady. We need more people like you out there willing to study these powerful storms to help protect people like us. Thank you.

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  5. Excellent blog. What I don't understand is why Oklahoma City, Midwest City and other central communities have done away with public shelters. We do need a funding vehicle in this state to provide public and private shelters, along with tax breaks or credits. We were very, very lucky the tornado moved south away from OKC, and did not hit Midwest City-Del City or Tinker AFB.

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  6. I found you when I was staying with my sister in OKC. I had to be up and at dialysis at 5am. You are brilliant, very pretty and funny. God Bless you on your journey. Can't believe you are a storm chaser. That is SO INCREDIBLY cool. I live in Rochester NY but watch you online occasionally. Keep the faith and be safe. You are a complete package. We don't want to lose you. :-)

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  7. U r a very tough person most couldn't deal with that kind of tragedy and we r proud to have u. Just because ur family ain't here don't mean u have to cry alone I'm a great listener and i will always have a shoulder u can cry on and some of us like ur nerdy talk so don't skip out on details I'm a shy Guy who don't like to talk but I will say this I caught the last part of rise n shine on friday and let me just say it was pretty wicked but nice u got great potential as a meteorologist and a woman I can say I love u because I don't know u but I can say we love the things u do

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  8. I hope all this leads to some storm chaser legislation. Only the real chasers like you need to be on the roads. It must be scary out there getting stuck in the chaser traffic. Thanks to you and your team for the hard work, lost sleep, and dedication to public safety.

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  9. Do u see know u r a rare sign of hope and hope is always best in the heart and where did u wind up in the heart of America and feeling helpless when u have done every thing u could even cry makes u more like a super hero u wished for meteorologist powers but u been to busy with important things to see u had them all along it is very hard to keep my attention but some u mange to do so

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  10. Storm chasing is inherently dangerous, as are many other human activities that provide less public benefit. You did your best to do your job while staying safe in extraordinary circumstances. You are a wonderful breath of smart, capable, enthusiastic, genuine fresh air. Don't let the trolls get you down.

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  11. heather hampsmireJune 16, 2013 at 4:31 PM

    I, being in my early 40's have not been one to watch news let alone weather, but having watched you on every morning not only have you given me appreciation for what you all go through on a daily basis whether by yourselves, or when bad weather hits as a team, it is truley amazing.Even my 10 year old son comes running in my room during the winter months wanting to know what the wind chill is before school. And your right you were brought here for a reason, because you are good at what you do, you explain things that most of normally would not understand, and for that I appreciate it. keep doing what your doing, what you love, because we all love you for doing it.

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  12. Thanks for all the kind comments everyone. I just had to let my feelings out. I think it's a healthy thing to do sometimes! Have a great week!

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  13. Thanks very much for your large information .And knowledge full description . I think it is Sus a topic that many kinds of people face many problems. thanks for this.
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