Storm Chase May 31, 2013: El Reno, Oklahoma Tornado


 

chase images,log, video links and archived radar and data by William T. Hark, M.D. Video (HD) and pictures available for licensing. Click on images to enlarge

 


Chase day video highlights of the early formation of the El Reno tornado.
This does not include the view west as I was dropping south on 81 or SR 4.
These are included on other videos.
Best enlarged to full screen and watched on HD setting.

Video clip of my narrow escape south on 81. Not included on the other video.
I initially kept it private. View shows tornado approaching from the west
until I dropped the camera as I was hit with the circulation.
Best enlarged to full screen and watched on HD setting.

 

 

This was my last chase day of the 2013 Tornado Alley chase season, and it started with high expectations for a fun and exciting storm chase, and it ended in a close-call for myself and tragedy for many including three well-known storm chasers and researchers. Tornadic supercells were expected. There was an approaching trough with significant forecast shear and instability. CAPE values were expected to be over 4000 by late afternoon. There was a surface low southeast of Alva and surface winds in the Oklahoma City area were expected to shift to being from the southeast (backing winds). The SPC had already issued a Moderate Risk. Unfortunately, metropolitan areas were under the threat for these storms especially around rush hour. I was chasing with a large group including Robert Balogh, Chris Kridler, Scott McPartland, Dave Lewison, and the group from The Weather Network, the Canadian version of the Weather Channel. They included Dayna Vettese, Brad Rousseau, Greg Stephens and Jaclyn Whittal.

We started in Norman, Oklahoma. After checking more data at the Guest Inn and a leisurely breakfast at Jimmy's Egg, we headed north and west in a large caravan. The target was El Reno, Oklahoma. This gave easy routes in all directions should storms fire in another area. We passed through the devastation from the Moore tornado that occurred the previous week. Although repairs were underway, there were still mangled vehicles and destroyed buildings that were easily visible from the interstate. In El Reno, we stopped at a gas station and waited. We passed the time checking data, last minute vehicle cleaning, chatting with other storm chasers who were arriving and eating nasty gas station food. The sky had an outbreak appearance with scattered ragged and bubbling cumulus clouds. We considered shifting south but decided to stay since there was good data availability. I was actually starting to sunburn while standing outside talking with the other chasers. Despite being in an area known for severe weather, recent devastating tornadoes, and media warning of significant storms, many locals came up to our group to ask if there was a chance of storms. By midafternoon, the dewpoints were in the 70's and as expected, the surface winds were backing. The cumulus appeared more agitated in our area and toward the west. Turkey towers were developing by 3:30 PM. While watching the development, additional chasers arrived including the Twister Sisters, Anemometer Steve and Dan Robinson. Researcher Dr. Howie Bluestein was in his radar truck off by the edge of the parking lot. Everyone was waiting in anticipation. Suddenly, the “cap broke” and storms formed just to the west and north. With storms exploding, we left El Reno and headed west at 4:54 PM on I-40. There were three small storms west of Calumet, Oklahoma. The southerly and especially the northerly ones were initially dominant. We took the Calumet exit and headed slightly north and east. The northerly storm had already started to rotate and had a slight lowering. It didn't do anything. The middle storm was now merging with the southern storm. This would now become the dominant storm. Unfortunately, the east-west road had poor visibility and the southerly storm was moving more east than northeast. Road options were poor and we elected to head back east to El Reno. The storms were rapidly approaching the city. When we reached 81, the group decided to head south. I wanted to be a bit closer in case the storm did something interesting. I decided break off from the group and go west on Sunset Road, a bypass that goes along the north side of El Reno and ends at an exit on I-40 west of town. The southerly storm became tornado warned at about 5:37 PM. I watched it for a while by the I-40 exit. The area of interest was too far south of the interstate. I would have to get east and south. Safe road options were limited. The storm was a massive supercell, and I was already on the edge of the rain and hail. I headed east on I-40, south on 81 at 5:48 PM and then backtracked west on Reno Rd E/E 1070 Rd toward the airport. I was 2 ˝ miles south of I-40. Visibility was poor from 81. I suspected the storm would soon produce a tornado, and I wanted to be in position to see it early. Many times, the best tornadoes are early in the storm's life cycle. The storm was not moving very fast. Although the road to the airport was gravel, I suspected it would be the best of the gridded dirt roads, and I could approach the storm in an area of good visibility. I had hoped that the storm would shift more east and I could follow it from the south side. State Road 81 was a good escape route if I needed to drop south. The gigantic stormed loomed in the distance as I drove west. The structure was amazing with inflow bands. Unfortunately, it was a HP (high-precipitation) supercell and observing the tornado would be more difficult. There were reports of a tornado on the radio by 5:57 PM. They have very good radio storm coverage in the OKC area. At 6:01 PM, I turned north on Airport Road and went to the intersection with NW 10th Street (also labeled as E1060 Rd) by El Reno Regional Airport. The inflow was increasing, and I could definitely see a tornado by 6:03 PM slightly to the north of west. The tornado seemed distant, and I had to use the zoom to get a good view. I really did not want to get closer as something didn't seem right about the storm. It was beautiful but different than the average tornadic storm that I have chased. I had some nice roads to get closer but decided not to take the chance. The tornado transitioned into multiple thick vortices. By 6:05, it was a carousel of vortices around a central axis. It was also starting to shift southward. The main condensation funnel lifted at 6:06 PM but I could still see motion beneath it. I shifted to the intersection of Airport Road and Reno Rd and stopped at 6:08 PM. The contrast was poor but I could still see the tornado with multiple vortices just on the south side of the Reno Road to my west. There were still cars heading west toward that tornado and other chasers just to my north calmly watching the storm. The tornado was barely visible through the rain. At 6:10 PM, I decided it was getting too close, and I turned east on Reno Rd. There were a few other cars heading east, but I left many others in my area or further west. I was driving at a decent speed. Traffic was not a problem, and I even stopped briefly at 6:11 to shoot a few seconds of video. The tornado was closer. I continued east and reached my south option, 81, by 6:17 PM. I turned south and to my surprise, the massive tornado was almost on me. There were already some wrapping rain curtains approaching the road to my south. The tornado had dramatically increased in both speed and size. I made the decision to go south. That decision was partly instinctual as a storm chaser. I had a divided highway with little traffic. I didn't want to continue east on an unknown dirt road. I also didn't want to go north into the core, brave El Reno city congestion or get caught in traffic on I-40. I also remember thinking that the storm could turn north. Looking back, I probably should have headed north and then east on I-40. Anyway, I blasted south. There were a few other cars near me and to my north. They did not appear to be in a hurry, and I passed them. The tornado was not a classic funnel, but I knew it was in the mass of rain and clouds. I filmed a few seconds, and could see swirling vortices by a developing wedge just in the field to the west. I dropped the camera and held on. The tornadic circulation overtook me, and I was buffeted with wind causing the car to shift back and forth. I am surprised that I made it considering the intensity of the winds. I was only on the edge and soon escaped to the south after a couple minutes of terror. I don't know what happened to the cars that were further north or the ones I passed driving south. At that point, I was certain there were some serious injuries or deaths among chasers and locals. At 6:20, I stopped between SW 44th St and SW 59th St and looked northward. The huge tornado was rain-wrapped and moving eastward. It would soon shift back northward. I continued south toward Union City where I saw Scott McPartland and the rest of the chase group. They had remained on 81 and also had to flee the tornado. We were all caught in traffic in Union City. My friends continued south while I turned east on 152 hoping to see the tornado again. My wait in Union City threw me out of position. I drove east and the storm was to the north. At times, I could see a massive wedge tornado hidden in the murk to the north. I couldn't keep up with it, and ended the chase at a shopping center by the intersection of 4 and 152 in Mustang, Oklahoma. I watched the storm move off to the northeast. There were other storms with tornadic potential west of the original storm that could move south toward my position. Traffic seemed heavier than usual for rush hour. I decided that I should end the chase and leave the area. I drove through various side roads in the Mustang area and found severe congestion on all roads leading south including dirt gridded roads. I wasn't even on a main road. The storms to the north were shifting closer. Finally, after much maneuvering, I made it onto 4 heading south. It was a total mass of panicked drivers slowly heading south. At times, people would drive the wrong way on the northbound lanes going south while dodging the limited northbound traffic. I had current radar images and was making enough progress southward that I knew I was out of danger. Most of the other drivers didn't have that knowledge. Still, I didn't like being on the bridge over the Canadian River while sitting in traffic, a death trap in even the weakest tornado. Further north, there was the potential of another tornado bearing down upon the traffic clogged roads. I finally reached 44 by 8:14 PM and drove southwest toward Chickasha. Traffic had lightened but when I reached Chickasha, the town was clogged with traffic from the Oklahoma City area. The anxiety of the populace increased when the power went out. I knew there were no tornadic storms in the area. At a local bank, I met up with my friends who had also suffered in the long traffic jams. They didn't have as good a view of the early tornadoes but later had a better view of the rain-wrapped wedge tornado and were able to escape sooner than I. With Oklahoma City clogged with traffic and roads underwater from flash flooding, we decided to head back north on 81. I had to get to Wichita, Kansas for my flight home, and they could only find a hotel room in Enid. Our northward progress was slow until El Reno. We passed the damage path of the tornado and could see a few smashed cars in the grass away from the road. In Enid, we said our goodbyes at a McDonalds and I continued north. I arrived sometime around 3 AM at the Wichita Inn by the airport. I was tired and relieved that the chase day had ended. All my close friends were safe though I was worried about other chasers who did not get out in time. The media was already reporting several deaths, and I was sure more casualties would be found the next day.

After I returned home, the events surrounding the El Reno tornado became clear. There were many killed including the well-known and respected researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and chase partner Carl Young. I knew Tim and Carl and would chat with them at meetings or if I ran into them out in the field or at the conference in Denver. They were deploying probes in front of the tornado and were caught by the sudden change in direction and size. Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and his crew were somewhere to my north on 81, and were injured when their car was thrown by the tornado. After further analysis, the tornado was given the preliminary rating of EF5 and was found to the widest tornado on record at 2.6 miles in diameter. That rating was later reduced to EF-3 as radar data was disregarded in favor of only observed damage. The heavy traffic near Oklahoma City was not due to storm chasers. At least one television station recklessly advised people to “head south” and the roads were clogged with evacuees who were now out in the open and trapped while additional tornadic storms were moving through the area. I am deeply saddened by the deaths and injuries on May 31 and I hope that something can be learned from this experience. I will definitely be much more cautious in the future.


Moore, OK tornado damage

Waiting in El Reno, OK 1:33 PM CDT

Chase vehicles, El Reno 2:36 PM

"Turkey towers" El Reno, 3:28PM

Waiting, El Reno, OK 3:55 PM

"Exploding towers," El Reno, 4:02 PM

XM Radar Image 4:50 PM CDT

Storm to the west 4:54 PM CDT

XM Radar Image 4:55 PM CDT

Storm, view from Sunset Dr, exit 119 I-40 5:39 PM

Supercell at 5:58 PM, view to the west
on Reno Rd E/E 1070 Rd

Tornado, 6:04 PM view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:04 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:04 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:04 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST
Lightning enhanced contrast

Tornado, 6:04 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:05 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:05 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:05 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST

Tornado, 6:05 PM, view from Airport Road & NW. 10th ST
Contrast enhanced due to lightning

Highly enhanced image of tornado at 6:09 PM CDT
view west from intersection of Airport Road and Reno Rd

Highly enhanced image of tornado at 6:10 PM
view west from intersection of Airport Road and Reno Rd

Approaching tornado at 6:17 PM
view to west from 81 while going south

Wedge tornado at 6:30 PM, low contrast
view to north from 152 just E. of Union City

Last view of the storm to northeast
from intersection of 4 and 152 in Mustang at 6:47 PM

Evacuation traffic on S Mustang Road

Evacuation traffic on 4 going
south per advice from TV station
My video while in evacuation traffic
.


 

GPS map with observation points and chase route


Radar images of the storm with my position (click on images for enlargement)


6:06 PM CDT

6:06 PM CDT

6:12 PM CDT

6:12 PM CDT

6:17 PM CDT

(extra enlarged view)

6:17 PM CDT

(extra enlarged view)
Thanks to Tim Vasquez for the radar images.

 

Archived weather data and other information

12Z 500 mb 12Z 850 mb 00Z 850 mb 1443Z surface 2016Z surface
SPC Meso TDw 2000Z SPC Meso SBCAPE 1900Z SPC Meso SigTor 2000Z SPC meso SigTorEff 2000Z CAPS CAPE/Helicity 2300Z
Sat 2010Z Sat 2015Z Sat 2125Z Sat 2155Z Sat 2225Z
12Z NAM 500mb 2100Z 12Z NAM 500 mb 0000Z 12Z NAM 700mb 2100Z mb 12Z NAM 700mb 0000Z 12Z NAM 850mb 2100Z
12Z NAM 850mb 0000Z 12Z NAM CAPE 2100Z 12Z NAM CAPE 0000Z 12Z NAM Precip 2100Z 12Z NAM Precip 0000Z
12Z NAM SREH 2100 12Z NAM SREH 0000Z 12Z NAM Surface 2100Z 12Z NAM Surface 0000Z NWS Tornado Path

Additional information and other chase accounts

NWS May 31, 2013 Report Tornado and storm reports Jon Davies blog entry Dayna Vettese(TWN article)
Chris Kridler Dan Robinson John Allen Direct link to StormTrack reports
Bill Reid Dave Chapman Nick Nolte Videos by Skip Talbot and analysis, Jeff and Kathryn Piotrowski,
Scott McPartland, George Kourounis, & Chris Gullikson



Go to Storm Chase 2013

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All images Copyright 2013 William T. Hark