Tornado Alley Primer

May 21 2013 Published by under [Etc]

Many US folks think of "fly-over" country where I live as a bunch of fields of crops or grass with cattle grazing. This area does include civilization, and I thought some of my friends and loved ones might like to know a bit more about where those pesky tornados keep dropping out of the sky.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This map shows interstate 44 which basically traces tornado alley. Point A is in Wichita Falls, TX, just over the border from Oklahoma. It extends to Point B in St. Louis. This route goes through Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Joplin (just over the border in Missouri), Springfield (where I grew up), and St. Louis (where my spouse grew up). As recent years have shown us, tornados can drop anywhere they want, not just in this hot region.

But this is the hot spot.

So let's focus on the Oklahoma City area where I live and where the current disasters occurred.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

On Sunday (May 19) the twisters went north, approximately along the upper black line. My home is in the Edmond area, where the purple asterix lies. This storm first began as a wall cloud near Quail Springs, at the west end of the arrow. A tubular feeder cloud started circulating into the wall cloud, and we watched a ropy finger of wind drop from the sky, then break up. As the storm moved to the east, the process began again just east of the 74 symbol that the path crosses over. This time, the funnel formed bigger and began traveling along the ground toward us. We stood in our yard, on a high spot in the area, and watched. You can tell when the tornado contacts the ground. First a line of birds surges up in front of it, then scatters in all directions. The funnel then fills with debris, making it appear larger and fiercer. The extent of the high winds around the tornado can be estimated by power flashes as electrical lines get tossed about.

We moved between the yard and the television where we could better see the storm's path. Our yard was windy but not necessarily more than any other spring day in Oklahoma. We could hear each other without problem in a normal tone of voice. Every once in a while we felt a sprinkle of rain, but nothing to suggest the storm just a mile or two away.

The tornado appeared to dissipate just to our west, but then had a second wind as it approached Lake Arcadia. There it formed a waterspout that we watched traverse the lake.

This twister rated EF1, causing minor damage - branches down, shingles blown away, but no buildings destroyed.

Monday (May 20) we saw the true power of nature. Moore is a southern suburb of Oklahoma City, lying between the city and Norman where the undergraduate campus of OU and the national weather center both reside. This storm once again began with a wall cloud and a feeder cloud that we watched on television, courtesy of weather helicopters and storm chasers. Once again, a ropy finger stretched out of the cloud to the ground. This time, instead of tenatively touching up and down a few times, the extension widened into a true funnel. The funnel continued to enlarge, becoming a massive wedge at least half-a-mile wide on the ground. High winds around it, estimated by power flashes, extended its reach to a mile-wide swath that slowly made its way through Moore.

I watched the devastation with people who live in Moore and have loved ones there. One woman talked on the phone with adult children in a storm shelter, wanting to know if they could come out yet.

Imagine that your child build a city with the houses and hotels from a Monopoly Game. Picture going through with a very wide vaccuum, sucking up much of the work and scattering the rest. Now envision this at full scale with real people and homes.

When we heard about the schools, I paid attention. Crush injuries often cause acute kidney injury and failure, so I anticipated having those sorts of trauma on my inpatient service today. Unfortunately, the kids fell mostly into two groups. Some had lacerations and bruises and minor physical injuries. The others did not make it. It is especially disheartenining to think of those children who got into the basement of their school, the best possible shelter for a tornado, only to drown.

As daylight comes again this moring, first responders pick their way through the debris trying to find those who may still be trapped in storm shelters. I do not envy them their grim task.

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