The tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20 got a lot of attention because it tore through residential areas, doing a huge amount of property damage and killing 24 people. It was an EF5, the strongest they come. Only 11 days later, a second EF5 tornado hit in the same vicinity, but this one didn’t get nearly so much press because, while it did a lot of local damage to El Reno — and killed three veteran storm chasers — it mostly chewed up fields and rural zones.
But now the US National Weather Service has had time to study their data, and it turns out that the second tornado was a whopping 2.6 miles wide (4.2 kilometers), making it the largest tornado ever recorded. With winds reaching 295 mph (475 kph), it barely missed making an additional record for the strongest winds ever recorded on Earth. (That record, ironically, belongs to another EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma in 1999. Its winds reached 302 mph.) With a track over 16 miles long (25.7 kilometers), this tornado had plenty of time to cause hell on earth had it touched down in a high-density area rather than a field. According to the Associated Press:
William Hooke, a senior policy fellow of the American Meteorological Society, said the continued growth of cities in tornado-prone areas makes it only a matter of time before another monstrous twister hits a heavily populated area.
“You dodged a bullet,” Hooke said. “You lay that path over Oklahoma City, and you have devastation of biblical proportions.”
Tempest Tours, a for-profit storm chasing outfit, got some eye-popping footage of the birth of the May 31 tornado. The first minute of the video is high-speed, as the vans chase the storm and get set up, but after 1:00 it reverts to normal speed and becomes frankly terrifying. The clients are out in the road, taking photos and oblivious to their danger as multiple vortices begin to form. The tour operators have to lay on their horn repeatedly before the last two clients start running back. Amazingly, one of them runs across the road from the van for more photos even as one of the vortices are moving toward them. It takes more honking and banging on the window to bring him in.
There are several minutes of footage taken from the van as it first runs to a safer distance, and then parallels the rapidly growing tornado. At the 8:40 mark, the camera is again still. Clients are outside the van, snapping photos and asking questions, and at 10:04 one asks if a funnel is “going to touch down again.” This, while they are all staring at the largest tornado in recorded history.
It’s not a stupid question, though. We tend to think of tornadoes as always having a recognizable, tapering funnel, as this one did in the beginning. But when they grow into massive EF4s or EF5s — especially one 2.6 miles across! — the funnel is so vast that it looks like a storm mass hovering right down to the ground. People not familiar with the realities of tornadoes may drive straight into one without having a clue of the risk. Watch this video at the 9:30 mark and ask yourself if you would have recognized that for what it was.
While reviewing videos of the May 31 tornado, I ran across this one of the May 20 tornado — the one that devastated Moore. (The owners won’t allow embedding, but it is riveting footage.) It’s quite a different flavor than the one above, with professional storm chasers reporting live to a news station as they track the tornado, and the news report going on in the background.
The storm chasers capture the birth of the tornado, and it’s very impressive to watch it touch down, dissipate, touch down again, and then swiftly grow into a monster. But for me, the moment that made me rub my eyes and look again comes at 6:50, when one of the storm chasers shouts, “Oh, those are cars! Oh my gosh, those are cars!” You won’t see it unless you’re watching in high definition and full screen, but two cars are swept from left to right around the column of the tornado, high in the air. Both crash into the ground on the right side of the tornado.
It was hard for me as a movie-going person to get past the fact that this was not CGI. This was real life, and anyone in those cars died on impact. When the weather forecaster on the news channel said, “If you are not underground, on the path of this storm, you are endangering your life,” he was telling the gospel truth.