The days that changed everything: May 20-31, 2013

OK, that might be a little much. Truth is, I didn’t start planning to have a career in meteorology until my junior year of university, in late 2015. I should have realized my calling much earlier, but that cannot be helped now. However, I consider the time of May 20-31, 2013 pivotal in my life.

It was my senior year of high school, and to be honest, it seemed like the best year of my life. I was quite happy with where I was in life, and I was wrapping up my high school career. The only problem was, I had no idea what I was going to do in college. Sometimes I would consider meteorology, but the math seemed too hard (I was right!). Biology was an option, and so was geology (my first of three majors). The question became: What do I really want to do? I had no real direction. However, surrounded by friends and having the time of my life, there was no concern in my head. While the events in Oklahoma during the end of May wouldn’t change this state of apathy, the seeds were planted for my future calling.

I remember looking at the SPC outlooks for May 20th (even when my interest in weather waned, I would still often check the outlooks) and seeing a moderate risk for severe weather that day. While this happens rather often in the plains states in May, it still carries some weight to me. I got home from school around 2:40 on Monday, May 20th, and turned on the Weather Channel, and what happened next would stay with me forever.

I can vividly remember the coverage of the Moore, OK EF5 that day. Watching the tornado tear through the town that had been hit so hard only 14 years before was sickening, and yet I couldn’t stop watching. They would often show the KFOR coverage, where Mike Morgan told people to drive away from the tornado if they didn’t have a basement (which, even then, sounded odd to me) and I was transfixed to the TV as my family was preparing to move. The slow moving tornado ripped through Moore and was shrouded in so much debris the funnel became indistinct. The horror of realizing hundreds of homes, and some of the people in them, were being obliterated on live television dawned on me. I couldn’t stop watching what happened. I was amazed to learn a day or so later that only 24 people died. The slow-moving nature of the tornado, along with the excellent lead time, precluded what could have been much worse. A tornado akin to the El Reno wedge, (I’m getting to it) which was much larger and heavily rain-wrapped, could have caused a much higher fatality rate.

With the memories of Moore still in my mind, I saw a substantial risk for severe weather on May 31st. I watched the Weather Channel during the afternoon as the storms began to fire in western and central Oklahoma. I can clearly remember Mike Bettes and the Weather Channel crew reporting on the tornado getting closer to their location, and soon after they went off the air, Greg Forbes saying he believed they were not in a good position. The most vivid memory of mine was Bettes reporting that he and his crew were hit by the tornado. The El Reno tornado was officially the largest tornado in history (although there was at least one larger-the May 3, 1999 Mulhall F4) and had doppler estimated wind speeds of near 300 mph. Interestingly, it produced no EF5 damage, so the tornado was rated EF3. (I may make a blog post about this subject later; in my opinion, the El Reno wedge should have been rated EF4) While it is likely not one of the strongest tornadoes of all time, the tornado is quite memorable for its size and for the deaths it caused. Renowned researchers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young were killed as their car was likely hit directly by an intense sub-vortex. The only storm chaser deaths attributed to a tornado were on this day. All of the events that day created a lasting impression on me. I did not pursue a career in meteorology at first, but May 20th and May 31st were important events in my current meteorological pursuits.

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