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Category: Met 101/Weather History

The El Reno Tornado

| 11:13 am May 31, 2015

The El Reno, Oklahoma Tornado occurred on this date two years ago. It was a game changer for storm chasers.

The event had been well forecast. Hundreds of chasers had converged on the small community in Canadian County, Oklahoma. A thunderstorm developed in the explosively unstable environment, going from relatively harmless cumulus clouds to a powerful supercell thunderstorm extending more than 60,000 feet into the atmosphere.

The tornado touched down at 6:03 p.m. about 8 miles west southwest of El Reno and lumbered slowly southeast. Almost immediately, it was already a wedge, the visible funnel beneath the cloud base wider than it was tall.

Researcher and storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young were monitoring the storm from a position about 2.5 miles to its northeast. By 6:09, the tornado was already rain wrapped, obscuring its true intentions from chasers. It was accelerating and turning east just south of Reno Road approaching Brandley Road. Samaras and his team were struggling to get ahead of the fast moving tornado as they navigating, south, then east and then north, just out of the tornado’s reach as it raced east at over 40 mph, growing to nearly two miles wide.

By 6:16, Samaras and his team had turned east on Reuter Road, a major east-west artery. They were less than a mile north of the edge of the tornado. It was still zigzagging east southeast, but it was growing even larger. It took them three minutes to make it to US-81, the main north-south road in the area. They paused there for a moment. The tornado was nearly 2.5 miles wide at this point, the edge of the swirling mass obscured in heavy rain and less than a quarter mile south of them, and it was turning to the northeast.

Unbeknownst to Samaras’ TWISTEX team, as they continued east on Reuter Road, they were heading into the teeth of a monster. Speeding east, they began to encounter intense 70 mph head winds on the left side of the tornado that slowed their progress. The tornado was holding them back with its outer circulation, the winds in the powerful vortex approaching 300 mph according to Doppler radar data.  

Before the TWISTEX crew reached Radio Road, their path intersected the tornado. There, a subvortex intercepted their White Chevy Cobalt and threw the car over 2,000 feet. It was recovered in a field east of the intersection of Reuter Road and Radio Road. Tim was found in the crushed car. The engine and three of the wheels were missing. Paul and Carl’s bodies were recovered near where the subvortex hit the car.

National Weather Service Office in Norman, Oklahoma -

National Weather Service Office in Norman, Oklahoma –

The El Reno Tornado was a terrible beast. Some of the frightening superlatives noted by the Doppler on Wheels according to Josh Wurman:

…As it neared Highway 81, it was moving at 55 mph. This contributed to the deaths of the TWISTEX team as the massive tornado overtook them.

…Subvortices inside the parent tornado were as large as other major tornadoes.

…There were actually tornadoes within other tornadoes.

…The DOW actually recorded a 255 mph velocity in a subvortex! (That’s the equivalent of an EF5 rating).

…The official width of the tornado was 2.6 miles, making it the largest on record. But the circulation was actually 4.3 miles wide at 300 feet according to the radar!

…The powerful circulation produced an anticyclonic tornado with winds measured at 145 mph.

It’s human toll was great: nine people lost their lives during the storm.

It was initially rated as an EF5, but that rating was surprisingly lowered to an EF3. Velocities measured by the DOW were well above the threshold for an EF5 rating, but the rating scale is a damage scale and since the tornado did not leave damage indicators that were consistent with those wind speeds, the official rating of the tornado went into the books as an EF3. Many argued that the reliable Doppler radar data gathered during the El Reno Tornado supported the EF5 rating.

One thing the El Reno Tornado did was remind thousands of professional and amateur storm chasers that the violent storms are unpredictable and deadly. Tim Samaras was widely known as one of the most respected and safest chasers in the business. If he could die in a storm, then it could happen to anyone.

May 30, 1948: The Vanport City Flood

| 10:31 pm May 29, 2015


Portland, OR was a major shipbuilding during World War II. As many as 100,000 people were employed in the shipyards. Thousands of people flocked to Portland, many of them African-Americans who had moved to the Northwest from the South. The huge influx of people created a huge housing shortage.

Vanport City was a federal housng project built on 650 acres along the banks of the Columbia River north of Portland. As many of 40,000 workers lived in the city of Vanport during the war. After the war, layoffs thinned the population, but 19,000 workers still lived in Vanport City in 1948.

Despite the fact that Vanport City was on the largest river in the western United States, there was little concern. The winter of 1947-48 produced heavy snowfall amounts in the upper Columbia River basin. Warm temperatures in the spring caused rapid melting of the snowpack, and rivers and streams quickly jumped their banks. Despite the rising water, there still was little concern.

On Sunday, May 30th, a dike which supported a rail track on the west side of the housing development suddenly collapsed. The crevasse widened from 6 feet to 60 feet and then to 500 feet wide. It only took two hours to flood the entire city. The following day, the dike on the eastern side of town collapsed also, sealing the town’s fate.

There was almost no warning for the town’s 19,000 residents. Twenty five people drowned. The residents of the town lost all of their personal belongings, most escaping with just the clothes on their backs. Ten thousand homes were destroyed. Damage totaled $21 million. Vanport would never be rebuilt. The area is now a flood mitigation zone with parks and golf courses.

Scary Clouds

| 6:24 pm May 27, 2015

They are just that. Scary clouds.

Several people around The Summit have been observing menacing looking funnel like clouds to the south over Double Oak Mountain. Here is an example from @jmdrennen.


These are harmless scud clouds developing as air is lifted by the cooler, moist outflow of nearby storms. Cloud fragments, known as scud, will form in mid-air or under the base that can protrude downward, appearing to be a funnel cloud.

These false funnels are distinguishable from true funnel clouds or tornadoes because they will not be rotating. They are also more ragged and often rising and descending intermittently.

James Remembers the Brent Tornado

| 6:32 am May 27, 2015

On Sunday night, May 27, 1973, I saw serious tornado damage for the first time in my life, and it changed my life. The sights and sounds are still fresh in my mind; almost like it happened yesterday.

I was wrapping up my junior year at Tuscaloosa High School, and on that Sunday night we received a call for help from our friends in Bibb County. A tornado had gone right through the center of Brent, and amateur radio operators from Tuscaloosa were needed to establish communication with relief agencies in Birmingham and other places. Remember, there were no cell phones in 1973, and this was an urgent need. I arrived with a group from Tuscaloosa within one hour of the tornado, and we were all stunned at what we saw. Eerie darkness, an odd odor (many people that have experienced call it the “smell of death”), roads blocked by trees, and debris everywhere. I wound up coming back the next morning, and stayed in Centreville (adjacent to Brent) handling communication from a church.

Down in Brent, a total of 5 people died in the storm, including Andrew Mitchell, who was attending evening worship services at the Brent Baptist Church, which was destroyed. Many more were injured, and town was just about wiped out by the EF-4 twister. That was actually just a segment of the damage; the tornado first touched down just northeast of Demopolis, and went through Greensboro, where one person was killed and 72 injured. It continued northeast, and took out the old National Weather Service radar site on Alabama Highway 25 before striking downtown Brent. The crew at the radar site had to take cover in the ditch across the street.




From Brent, the path continued near Montevallo and Childersburg, before it finally lifted on the western slope of Mount Cheaha in East Alabama. A total of 216 buildings were destroyed, 570 buildings were damaged, 97 mobile homes were destroyed, and 45 businesses were damaged or destroyed. More than 12,000 acres of timber was destroyed. It was a storm I will never forget, even though it happened 42 years ago.

We should note an EF-3 tornado that same day impacted a Tarrant-Center Point-Springville-St Clair Springs-Ashville-Gadsden path. Heavy damage occurred in Center Point where 32 homes and 48 mobile homes were destroyed. Over 300 homes were damaged. One person was killed by that storm.

This came at the tail end of the spring tornado season; a reminder we can have a strong/violent tornado in late May in Alabama.

This great site from John Brasher has more details about the situation in Brent.

The Andover Tornado of 1991

| 4:10 pm April 26, 2015

On this day 24 years ago, an F5 tornado devastated the community of Andover, Kansas, in a violent tornado outbreak over the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. On April 26, 1991, a total of 55 tornadoes developed, 30 of which were rated an F2 or greater. At one point during the storm, three separate F4 or F5 tornadoes – Andover, Red Rock, and Arkansas City – were simultaneously on the ground. 21 people died as a direct result of the April 26, 1991 severe weather – 17 from one storm alone.

While the April 26, 1991 storm is most known for the destruction of the Andover community, this same twister also hit parts of Wichita, McConnell Air Force Base and other parts of South Central Kansas. The following devastating tornadoes occurred primarily during the afternoon and evening hours across northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas.

4-26-2015 3-46-59 PM

The Andover tornado initially exhibited multiple vortices, producing F3 damage. As it veered north, it bore down on Haysville, Kansas, just south of Wichita. It passed through the southeastern part of Wichita, passing just a mile south of the South Wichita interchange on the Kansas Turnpike. McConnell Air Force Base was next on the tornado’s agenda. The twister crossed the Base’s runways and missed a billion dollar line of B-1B bombers by less than one thousand feet. The southern part of the Base received F2-F3 damage. The Officer’s Club, Base Hospital and base housing were heavily damaged. But the tornado was growing in size and intensity.


A subdivision near the Sedgwick County/Butler County line was nearly completely leveled as the tornado grew to its highest intensity. As the tornado turned into an F5 monster, it set its sights on the Golden Spur Mobile Home Park in Andover about 6:45 p.m. Warnings mentioning Andover specifically were issued seven minutes before the tornado arrived; however, the sirens in Andover were not working. A police cruiser drove through the park sounding its sirens as a warning. Many of the residents had heard about the approaching tornado from local television coverage and headed to the park’s storm shelter. Others said they would not take shelter until the funnel was visible. Fortunately, the tornado was slow moving and highly visible, and many made it to shelter in time. Over 200 people were huddled in the shelter when the twister struck, annihilating 233 of the 241 homes. The tornado obliterated the mobile home community, killing thirteen people. Twisted frames were the only remains of many of the mobile homes.

The tornado thankfully moved into more rural territory northeast of Andover, crossing the Kansas Turnpike. Near El Dorado, the tornado literally bounced a huge oil tank over a half mile. When the tornado finally lifted about five miles north of El Dorado, it had been on the ground for forty five miles. A total of seventeen people in the Andover community lost their lives. Right after the Andover tornado lifted, the same storm produced another tornado that was captured on news video as it passed near on overpass on the Kansas Turnpike, which enforced the false belief that overpasses could provide safe shelter during tornadoes.

The First TDS Warning

| 9:00 am April 25, 2015

Photo from @UAHSWIRLL

In 2002, a WSR-74C radar was donated to the University of Alabama – Huntsville. The radar is called ARMOR: the Advanced Radar for Meteorological and Operational Research.

In 2004, it was upgraded to dual-polarization capability. Radars typically send out and receive their electronic signals in the horizontal plane only. Dual-pol adds the vertical plane. This gives meteorologists quite a bit more data about the targets that the radar is “seeing” in the atmosphere, including size and shape. This can be very helpful in determining precipitation type and amounts.

One thing that researchers have found is that the data can sometimes differentiate the signature of debris being lofted into the air by a tornado that is on the ground. This can help confirm that a tornado is occurring when ground truth reports aren’t available, a great thing at night and in remote locations, or where terrain and trees limit visibility. The signature is called a Tornadic Debris Signature (TDS). We use them all the time today. There was clear evidence of one last night in Central Mississippi for example.

Researchers at UAH documented the first TDS in February 2008 in a pre-dawn F4 tornado during the Super Tuesday Outbreak in North Alabama.

On this date, meteorologists at UAH provided their first real time reports of a tornadic debris signature to the NWS to help issue a tornado warning for Marshall County in North Alabama as a tornado was doing damage in Albertville.