NORMAN, Okla. — Despite knowing for days that tornadoes are coming, there's a certain helplessness that hits weather forecasters when funnels descend — and a "pit of the stomach" feeling when the death toll rises.
Tornadoes have killed more than 520 people this year — the highest number in official National Weather Service records — even though advances in scientific research let forecasters issue warnings earlier.
"We are still trying to figure out what happened," said Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist for the government's Storm Prediction Center in Norman.
Meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center analyze wind patterns daily to predict which areas of the country may see severe weather over the next eight days. As the atmosphere further ripens, they talk with local weather forecast offices and begin to raise a general alarm. As storms are nearly imminent, the SPC issues the familiar tornado and severe thunderstorm watches for a state or region.
The system is set up to save lives, but despite the meteorologists' dedication to warn, people still die on their watch.
"It is horrible. It is just horrible," Carbinsays. "You know how peoples' lives have been affected by these events, and so you look at that. But you look at it, especially with the large number of fatalities. You have to be honest and say you really don't know what that's like."
Until this year, Carbin thought his career would be defined by the Super Tuesday outbreak of 2008, when a rare February outbreak generated 87 tornadoes and killed 50 people across the Mid-South as a number of states conducted primary elections. Five of the tornadoes were rated EF4, meaning they had winds approaching 200 mph.
Five storms this year have already earned the highest rating, EF5. Three hit the South on April 27 in a series of storms that killed 317 people, one hit Joplin on May 22 and killed at least 138 and another hit Piedmont, Okla., on May 24, killing nine. Carbin said the 30-plus employees at the Storm Prediction Center were just coming to terms with the Southern storms when the Joplin storm hit.
"Now, besides dealing with an outbreak of nearly unprecedented magnitude in the modern era from April, all of the sudden we are faced with a large number of fatalities in the same year or the same season. That completely throws you for a loop," he said. "I think we are all still processing that."
Carbin recalls watching the Oklahoma City area rebuild after tornadoes devastated parts of the community in 2010, 2003 and 1999. A 1999 outbreak generated the strongest tornado ever recorded on earth, with winds in excess of 300 mph in a storm that hit Moore, Okla.
But the death toll in those storms was a tiny fraction of the total so far in 2011.
"We are aware of the historic magnitude of the events this year, and as the season begins to slow, I am sure we will not only be studying these events that we are forecasting, but also taking stock of the historic nature of what has happened this year and what we need to focus on to improve this system," said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center.
The center still likely saved lives with its general advisories days ahead, along with local offices of the National Weather Service that are responsible for minute-by-minute critical warnings when a tornado has touched down.
Judy Swaim, 62, credits the meteorologists for keeping the death toll as low as possible. Swaim said she watched as meteorologists on TV warned about the potential for twisters a full day in advance. As the EF5 twister approached her house, she followed the advice of the meteorologists and took cover in her cellar.
"I just wasn't expecting to have a direct hit," she said. The storm ripped off the roof of her house, toppled trees in the front yard and left debris strewn about.
A few miles from Swaim's home, a 3-year-old boy was ripped from his mother's arm as they huddled in a bathtub and prayed while the storm passed. He was tossed about 50 yards away and found dead two days later in a nearby lake.
This season even saw tornadoes in the Northeast. At least three people were killed when at least two tornadoes touched down in Massachusetts, a state that hadn't seen a tornado since 2008 and hasn't had a tornado-related fatality since 1995. "It's rare," Carbin said. "They don't get a lot of tornadoes."
Carbin says he's unsure how to put the Massachusetts tornadoes in perspective with the rest of the season.
"We know there is very little correlation from month to month," he says. "This has just been one of those years where we just can't seem to get away from the crazy events and disastrous events."
It's the moments immediately after the storm appears on the radar — when damage reports and fatalities begin trickling in — that are difficult for the local National Weather Service offices, Andy Boxell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield, which covers Joplin.
His office was receiving damage reports within five minutes of the Joplin tornado touching down, he says.
"It's one of those things where there is undoubtedly that pit in the stomach feeling," Boxell says. "At the same time, the storm is still ongoing, and so while it's really, really hard to hear about everything, we almost have to disconnect for a moment and focus on the science and radar."
Boxell says it's later — usually a day or two after, when assessing the tornado's damage — that the magnitude of the devastation sets in for many.
"It's surreal in some cases. It was without a doubt the hardest on those who did the initial surveys the first day," he said.
Five days after the EF5 tornado ripped through the southwestern Missouri city and three days after Schneider sought shelter with his own family when a tornado came close to his Oklahoma home, he sits in his office in Norman and pulls up a map of the U.S. on a large computer screen on the wall. The map, colored based on population density with swarms of dots for cities, is focused on the Plains States, the region of the country known as Tornado Alley.
He focuses the map on Oklahoma, where he has marked the locations of his house, the National Weather Center — which houses the Storm Prediction Center, National Weather Service's Norman office and other federal and state agencies — and the city of Norman. Two lines represent the path of two twisters that swept through the state May 24, narrowly missing his home and the National Weather Center located on the University of Oklahoma campus.
Aside from the Oklahoma City metro area and the area around Tulsa, the map of Oklahoma is basically white, meaning there are very few people per kilometer.
Schneider zooms out and moves to the South — Alabama and Mississippi — where the rural areas have more people per kilometer and and stand out in blue.
Despite the denser rural population, the major metropolitan areas are still few and far between.
"The odds of them (tornadoes) coming to your particular community are very low,"says Schneider, who is stoic and matter-of-fact in his explanation.
He then zooms out again and moves to the area of dots comprising Joplin, a city of about 50,000. He zooms in on the dots and places the cursor along the path of the storm. If the EF5 twister had hit a few miles south, it would have hit farmland.
He stops his explanation and becomes silent, looking intensely at the map.
"We gave the people of Joplin a 20-minute warning, but they'll be dealing with this for years to come," he says, the magnitude of the death toll and recovery effort sinking in.
He pauses for a few seconds.
The scientist who always has an explanation no longer has one.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I guess I'm still processing it."