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Forecasts, TV, luck eased tornado risk in Oklahoma

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 6:09 p.m. CDT

PIEDMONT, Okla. — When three tornadoes marched toward Oklahoma City and its suburbs Wednesday, thousands of people in the path benefited from good forecasts, luck and live television to avoid the kind of catastrophe that befell Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo.

Though more than a dozen people died in the latest round of violent weather, schools and offices closed early, giving many families plenty of time to take shelter. And even stragglers were able to get to safety at the last minute because TV forecasters narrated the twisters' every turn.

"We live in Oklahoma, and we don't mess around," Lori Jenkins of Guthrie, Okla., said after emerging from a neighbor's storm shelter to find her carport crumpled and her home damaged.

The people of Oklahoma City, which has been struck by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city, knew the storms were coming. Anxiety was perhaps running higher than usual after last month's twister outbreak in the South that killed more than 300 people and a Sunday storm that killed at least 122 in Joplin, Mo.

The Oklahoma twisters proved to be weaker than the other tornadoes. But the minute-by-minute accounts of the developing weather helped thousands of people stay abreast of the danger.

Television helicopters broadcast live footage while the system approached the metropolitan area of 1.2 million people — calling out to specific communities like Piedmont to "Take cover now!"

In Guthrie, about 30 miles north of the capital city, Ron Brooks was watching when he learned that a tornado was barreling toward him. He heeded the weatherman's warning, scooped up his two children and took cover with his wife in their laundry room.

"When they told us to get into the shelter or interior room, we did that," Brooks said. "The first year I moved to Oklahoma, in 1997, I saw a funnel drop out of a wall cloud. Since seeing one, I've always taken it pretty seriously." He emerged 20 minutes later, relieved to learn that the tornado passed just north of his home.

Forecasters said another line of severe storms could sweep through the nation's midsection Wednesday, mainly east of Oklahoma. A tornado warning was briefly issued for downtown Kansas City, Mo., and at least two weak tornadoes touched down in or near the suburbs.

A few others were reported in Illinois. The storms were expected to move into western Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi later in the day.

In Joplin, rescue and recovery work continued Wednesday, with crews repeating grid searches for any survivors who might still be buried in rubble. Structural engineers were sent inside the ruins of St. John's Regional Medical Center, which was crippled by the twister, to see if the hospital could be saved.

Back in Oklahoma City, broadcasters offered live coverage of the storms for two hours before the bad weather actually hit around the evening rush hour.

But across the border in Arkansas, people in the tiny hamlet of Denning didn't have such a luxury. A tornado killed at least one person there. Storms left three others dead elsewhere in Arkansas and killed two in Kansas.

The storms arrived in Denning in the darkness, with a warning posted only about 10 minutes before a tornado nearly obliterated the town of 270 shortly after midnight.

Troy Ellison didn't even have that much time.

He was watching a movie in his mobile home when he switched on the TV news. The tornado was four minutes away.

"We were going to take the work truck and get out," Ellison said. "I looked out the back door with my son, and it was coming."

He dove under the kitchen table with his wife and two sons just before the tornado hit. "It got that growling sound, and the windows popped," he said.

The tornado ripped the roof off his home and collapsed his workshop next door. Somehow, the family escaped unharmed.

Then Ellison went outside and saw the family dog, Jager, his paws splayed out on the ground. The animal "looked like someone stepped on him." Ellison assumed he was dead.

But the dog, a pit bull-boxer mix, turned out to be fine. By Wednesday, he was prancing around in the sun as the Ellisons moved belongings out of their home.

"He must have known to stay low to the ground," Ellison said.

Oklahoma City has been hit by tornadoes 146 times, according to the federal government's Storm Prediction Center. That history brings respect for severe storms and a simple rule for people who find themselves in a twister's path: Get out of the way or get underground.

"I think Oklahomans, simply because we're around it so much, take very seriously the threat of severe weather. It's something we live with year-round," said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management. "We have a genuine respect for the severe weather here."

Part of that comes from learning to deal with bad weather at a young age, Ooten said.

The long track of the storm in Piedmont gave Lynn Hartman's family time to take shelter and then run away. As warning sirens sounded, Hartman said, she huddled in the pantry of her Piedmont home with her two children and the family dog until her husband arrived home from work.

"We're there just crying and praying," Hartman said, and her daughter, Sierra, 10, was saying repeatedly, "I just don't want to die."

The family then decided to flee as the storm drew closer. They crossed the Oklahoma City area to Shawnee. Once there, sirens sounded again for a storm approaching from the south. The four drove around for three hours before returning to find their roof gone. The pantry was standing, but Hartman was not convinced the family would have survived.

Ooten said trying to outrun a tornado is dangerous.

"Find the sturdiest building you can gain access to," she said. "Unless you're an expert, I wouldn't try to outrun a tornado. You're not in charge. Mother Nature is the one in charge."


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