It has been almost eight years since the last EF5 tornado struck the United States. The unlucky plot of land happened to be in Moore, Oklahoma. Funny enough, Moore had already experienced what some storm experts believe to be the most powerful tornado about 14 years prior.
In 1999, Oklahoma endured a tornado that would tear through Moore and Bridge Creek at record-shattering speeds. At one point, the twister reached 318 mph.
In the 1999 outbreak that produced this tornado, the first tornado emergency was declared. For many years after the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado, the storm was believed to be the most powerful tornado ever recorded. To this day, some still believe it to be true.
For a tornado to secure an EF5 rating, the damage surveyed must suggest wind speeds exceeding 200 mph. The Bridge Creek-Moore tornado reached 118 mph over the EF5 rating, causing the storm to leave a significant and deadly imprint on Oklahoma.
While the following tornado in 2013 was less powerful than its predecessor, it shared an eerily similar path. The likelihood of a tornado striking a metropolitan area is fairly minimal. The likelihood of a tornado striking the same metropolitan area more than twice is even slimmer.
In 1999, a storm produced up to 14 tornadoes on May 3rd. The ninth tornado to spawn from the storm was the deadliest of all of them and is infamous for creating millions of dollars in damage in Bridge Creek, Oklahoma City, and Moore.
Whether it was by intuition, or pure chance, the usage of the first tornado emergency during the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado could not have come at a better time.
During a typical tornado’s lifespan, the most intense damages will occur for a brief time. The NWS will rate a tornado based on the most severe recorded damage. Even if a tornado produces EF5 winds for only a few seconds, that tornado will still be considered an EF5. There are many tornadoes on record that have high EF ratings but produced significantly lower wind speeds throughout the majority of its life.
In the case of the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado, many heavy metropolitan areas were hit with consistent EF4 to EF5 winds. An estimated total of $1 billion in damages resulted from the mile-wide twister.
Bridge Creek suffered from EF5 winds; 1-inch thick asphalt pavement was torn from the ground and homes were swept off of their foundation. All mobile homes that stood in the path had no chance. 12 fatalities were recorded for Bridge Creek, and the tornado moved onward.
After Bridge Creek, the storm moved through Newcastle at EF4 power. Soon after, the tornado was heading directly towards the southern side of Oklahoma City. The tornado briefly weakened to an EF2 as it crossed the Canadian River. Powerful EF4 and EF5 winds came back quickly as the twister encountered a more populated area.
In my eyes, it is important not to cast too much light onto the death and destruction a tornado may cause. Honoring and respecting the lives lost comes first and foremost. The way that media tends to glamorize the onslaught of destruction trailing a tornado does two things.
In regards to glamorizing a tornado, the first deadly outcome is instilling the wrong sense of adventure into the average citizen. Every year, hundreds of adventurous people with cameras jump on the chance to perform an amateur storm chase. But what Hollywood portrayals of dangerous storms fail to show is how clogged the roads will get with unprofessional chasers.
Glamorized portrayals also neglect to show those who are injured or killed as a direct result of reckless behavior by the amateurs.
The second deadly outcome of glamorizing a tornado is the lack of respect towards a storm from the general population. This lack of respect is also largely due to false warnings and alerts for upcoming weather.
When you combine a frustrating amount of false alarms with a dramatic and almost unreal portrayal on TV(or social media), you get a lot of people who don’t take oncoming storms seriously.
The resistance to taking proper shelter by the general public was not a new phenomenon in the 90s. David Andra, a forecaster covering the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado, was the one to sound the tornado emergency. With his family in mind, he made a stern decision to issue a tornado emergency.
To have such severe warnings is important in hitting home the dangers of an oncoming storm. A regular tornado warning won’t suffice in situations similar to the Bridge Creek-Moore scenario.
The beauty of the tornado emergency warning is that it is infrequently used. By having a strong control on the usage of the term, people are more likely to understand the severity of the situation if it is used.
Technology has come incredibly far. The hard work of scientists, researchers, and volunteers all help to contribute to the safety procedures we have for dangerous storms. Since the declaration of the tornado emergency in 1999, there have been 191 similar emergencies declared. 2011 has a high number of tornado emergencies, due to the infamous 2011 tornado outbreak.
While the tornado emergency was not regulated or practiced procedure at the time of its initial declaration, the NWS now honors the alert for particularly deadly situations.