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KEVIN MYATT | The Roanoke Times
The beauty of the cloud formations on the back end of Friday’s cluster of supercells over Oklahoma City belies the mayhem, death and destruction it was causing underneath.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Severe storms forecasters and storm chasers often talk about "convergence."
Moisture convergence, convergence of wind fields, and "chaser convergence" when hundreds, even thousands, of storm chasers gather on a single storm.
Friday represented a convergence of many issues involving severe storms forecasting and storm chasing in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area with some tragic consequences.
Virginia Tech's storm chasers were, purposefully, only on the outskirts of Friday evening's Oklahoma City chaos. We saw the big storm filling the northern sky, a wall cloud or two to the west and streams of automobiles pouring south away from Oklahoma City.
We are very glad we were not in the middle of the maelstrom.
Early Friday afternoon, the developing severe weather setup was so obviously volatile that the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., issued a statement advising motorists to stay off the roads between 4 and 8 p.m. if possible.
Yet Friday evening, a television meteorologist encouraged residents to get in their cars and drive south out of Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City was in the path of multiple supercells with well-defined rotation on radar. The metro area was bombarded by flooding rains, hail up to softball sized, and repeated tornadoes, all as interstates were clogged by motorists attempting to flee their homes.
At one point, the weather service issued a statement on social media telling motorists stuck on Interstate 35 to abandon their vehicles and seek shelter in a building because of an approaching tornado.
More than 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, we witnessed streams of vehicles choking rural highways. Gas stations 50 miles away were filled with evacuees from Oklahoma City.
In America, we encourage a multiplicity of voices on almost every issue. The Internet and social media make it far easier for anyone to be heard on just about any subject.
In weather, this is great for discussion of how much snow might fall in a day or two. But for potentially life-saving warnings, it can create a virtual Tower of Babel.
When it comes to tornado warnings, there needs to be one and only one authoritative voice. The National Weather Service is far and away the best qualified to be that voice. Other media, traditional and online, should be in the business of relaying these warnings, not contradicting them.
Friday also marked the darkest day in the history of storm chasing.
Veteran tornado researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul and colleague Carl Young were killed in the tornado at El Reno, Okla., just west of Oklahoma City. Many of you may remember Samaras from the Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" series, but his reputation as a scientist preceded that program by many years.
The Weather Channel had its "Tornado Hunt" vehicle rolled off a highway with on-camera meteorologist Mike Bettes aboard. They survived. Scores of chasers suffered various kinds of damage to their vehicles.
We were in El Reno much of Friday afternoon, but only until we decided whether we would commit south or north of Oklahoma City. Chasing storms in a metro area is absolutely off the table for the Virginia Tech storm chasers.
So we went 60 miles south to a developing storm in rural terrain. When it dissipated, we returned to a point about 30 miles southwest of Oklahoma City to observe the edge of the mayhem, both human and atmospheric.
I don't have enough specific information to analyze what Samaras, the Weather Channel crew or any other chasers did or didn't do that day to get in harm's way.
But the troubling trend over the years is for chasers to get closer and closer to tornadoes in larger and larger numbers. The social media and television appetite for up-close tornado footage seemingly can't be quenched.
Normal city rush-hour traffic, plus interstate travelers, plus impromptu storm evacuation traffic, plus chaser traffic in extreme flooding, hail, winds and tornadoes created an epic nightmare in Oklahoma City.
Hopefully, something will be learned from this madness. It will certainly be something that sticks with 13 meteorology students in our care for the rest of their lives.
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