Monday, June 3, 2013

Tornadoes and Flash Floods hit Oklahoma City Area Friday Night

As tornado approaches Norman, fear takes over after seeing devastation in Moore that day.

On Friday, my daughter was here so we toured the devastation that hit Moore with the F-5 tornado.  It looks like a war zone for as far as you can see east and west.  These pictures were taken by my daughter who is also a business journalist:

We saw one home with only the steps and closet underneath remaining, a concrete/steel medical center pretty much destroyed, a post office that is shut from damage, banks destroyed, foundations with nothing left, toys in the lawns with no homes, and the list of devastation keeps going.  The devastation we saw Friday morning is much more then we saw after the May 3, 1999, tornado that hit Moore.  My guess would be the fact that such a huge tornado slowed to almost a standstill at times while it churned and chewed up homes and businesses.   It left you with a feeling how helpless you can be when a tornado takes dead aim on where you live or work.  The images we saw make you stop and think that most of us are not prepared if an F-5 tornado is bearing down at us.

Friday night another round of tornadoes flared up in Western Oklahoma near El Reno along with massive thunderstorms dumping a record amount of rain across the area which meant the storms were rain wrapped and storm chasers could not tell if they were on the ground except for power flashes.  We were watching TV when the tornado approached Will Rogers World Airport and saw the airport radar light go out which meant the airport had some damage as a backup generator should have immediately taken over.  Then it was tracking down I-240 and south and all of a sudden my daughter sees the line has Norman directly in its track After what we had witnessed with the Moore devastation, we decided to load up the car and all of us get out of Norman since the track was only two blocks from where we live.

Neighbors were doing the same as the media were warning people to get underground or as Channel 4 said to leave the area.  No cell phones except for my daughter's with low battery/spotty coverage for text messages from her boyfriend and his friend who were tracking where we should be headed which was south to Purcell but they said to stay off I-35 which was all backed up.  As I drove over to Porter (SR 77) to go south traffic started picking up.  As we crossed out of Norman into the Noble area all of a sudden all the traffic was headed south including in some northbound lanes.

There was traffic for miles - we were in Noble when the local radio said the tornado was coming south out of Norman into Noble but the radio had the wrong info as we  learned a short time later - that tornado had lifted and was headed south of Lake Thunderbird not due south out of Norman.  When we heard Noble is when all lanes started going south to clear people out of Noble.  As we were getting close to Purcell heavy rains started coming down as we were on this huge bridge over a river but it showed on radar according to the guys keeping us informed that rain did not stretch to S. Purcell which is where we ended up.

Chewie, my little fury friend, did really good on the trip except for one time we were almost stopped and he looks out the back of my SUV and sees all the cars behind us with their lights.  He starts really whimpering. Think he realized this wasn't one of his fun excursions he takes with me in town.  He didn't like seeing all the lights behind us is my guess since it was pitch dark.

We had time to get out of the danger zone and took a less traveled road south but even then it had plenty of  other people fleeing Norman a lot of them with pets as we saw at the local McDonald's parking lot.  Except for a few crazy truck drivers everyone was very orderly even allowing cars to pull into the line.  Next time storms fire up in Western Oklahoma like this with multiple tornadoes going in all directions, we are out of here early.  During tornado season will do what we did in fire season in SoCal -- have plastic containers with items you cannot replace filled and ready to go in minutes.

Finally we received the all clear text from the guys to go back to Norman as the heavy rain with huge hail had stopped with no more on the way.  Good thing as my daughter's cell phone was about to die.  We drove back I-35 which was not backed up and took SR 9 to SW 24th and then as we went north on 24th we began to see there were no lights anywhere - pitch dark and water standing in the drainage ditches.  Got home to no lights so my daughter's flashlight on her cell phone got us to a flashlight on my desk so garage door could be opened manually and car driven in the garage.

Lighted candles and then found the message on my cell phone sitting by my chair that said "EXTREME ALERT" Tornado Warning in area take shelter now which was about 20 minutes after we had left.  That was followed by "STRONG ALERT" about the torrential rains and baseball size hail.  Took a flashlight to go look at the green belt behind my home which was filled with water but I could see no damage to my garden which meant if we had hail, it was extremely small.  Potted plants on deck were brought back in the sun room earlier in week due to possible hail - that's the third time pots have been taken inside recently -- good exercise.

At that point that's when I realized how much my shoulders were aching from the last 2 1/2 hours of tension.  Must have been gripping the steering wheel hard trying to stay calm.  Woke up to power and a bright sunny morning Saturday with a mini lake in the green belt which was going down with no damage.  We thought we were home free for me to take my daughter to a wedding shower in OKC.  Then we discovered that roads were flooded out of Norman so it meant taking a road over to I-35 which was a parking lot with the gawkers.  We saw damage in places along I-35 that did not have damage the day before although it wasn't near as devastating but it meant one of the tornadoes had struck Moore again.  We finally cleared the traffic into downtown OKC and dropped my daughter off at the shower and headed back to Norman.

Needed gas but there was no power in the area of Norman gas stations where I normally get gas I planned to get gas at the 7-11 north on Sooner Road but the road was closed to flooding.  After taking my daughter to Bricktown, stopped at three gas stations along I-240 east of the airport in S. OKC and no power but I did see a lake at OCCC and then remembered there was no lake there normally.  Saw one of the huge transmission lines snapped in two and decided only way to go was back to Norman was to take the Turner Turnpike toward Lawton and get off at the Norman exit on SR 9.

Saw devastation along I-44 (Turnpike) from the Moore tornado.  In one place it had thrown around dump trucks like match box trucks and in another a metal bridge was partially in the S. Canadian River.  You could look east and see total devastation as far as you could see.  Was glad to see Riverwind Casino and Love's right across the highway on SR 9.  My SUV only took ten gallons so I had a lot of gas left but with all the traffic jams around the area, gas can go down pretty fast.

We did not realize how much rain had fallen but when I crossed the S. Canadian River on I-35, there were rapids in what is normally an almost dry river bed with little water.  Knew then we had a lot of rainfall and since learned we set a record for amount of rain in a day on May 31st and a record for May for rainfall.  City Hall in OKC had its basement totally flooded so in addition to the tornadoes that destroyed parts of El Reno, there was flooding which took more lives.

Three storm chasers from The Discovery Channel were killed in the El Reno tornado as the tornado changed course rapidly.  One minute the tornado would be going to the NE and then go SE for a while before turning back NE and then south.  Since we moved to Norman in Jan 97 due to a transfer, we have never witnessed a tornado(s) like the ones Friday night going all over the place while being tracked on radar and in the field.

Storm chasers were getting too close as these tornadoes turned rapidly in a different direction.  The Weather Channel had one of their vehicles destroyed and other storm chasers had their vehicles windows damaged along with the vehicle itself.  The tornadoes for the most part were rain wrapped at night which were extremely hard to follow except for the flash from power poles being hit  The professional storm chasers save lives every time.  What has happened is that there are novice storm chasers now on the roads for a thrill which needs to stop and keep the roads cleared for the professional storm chasers.

Best coverage here is Channel 9 with Gary England who stays calm and tries to keep the storm chasers calm as they track the tornadoes.  The whole staff at Channel 9, our CBS affiliate, is first rate.  Their storm chasing helicopter has given all of us a heads up on where the storms are headed.  The data from these storms that the National Weather Service here at the University of Oklahoma is collecting is going to be studied for a long time in hopes of increasing knowledge of storm prediction.

What a weekend - ready for no more storms in the future except soft gentle rain.  One good thing is we are no longer in a drought as I can sit here and almost watch my grass and garden weeds grow.

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