2013-05-31: El Reno, OK tornado

This chase log is long overdue. I tried over and over again to write it without the gravitas of the outcome saturating the prose. I’ve decided to stop worrying, post what I drafted, and let the chips fall where they may. It took me a long time to process what happened, but I figure a year later is as good a time as any to publicize my memories, which are not getting any fresher. I also wanted to make my experience known for data collection efforts such as the El Reno Survey Project.

Storm chasing is perceived as an edgy activity because it involves getting close to forces that exceed human scales. I am not an adrenaline junkie; I do not chase for want of fear. As I’ve articulated previously, I chase because I enjoy nature’s majesty and spectacle. We often pay lip service to the risks involved in storm chasing without complete comprehension of what they really entail: mutilation, death, destruction of treasure. This chase was my only one in which I was actually afraid of being overtaken and possibly killed by a tornado. I’m convinced that our escape unscathed from the claws of a murderous, multi-vortex EF-5 resulted from our relatively conservative chase strategy, a dash of luck, and my conscious choice to forgo even a glimpse of the tornado for several minutes as I ferried myself and my passengers to safety. You won’t find too much bravado in my story; we fled the instant we sensed something was afoul. I’m simply grateful that we didn’t add to the casualty count.

In the morning, while perusing the high-res guidance, I noted similarity between the density and pattern of forecast updraft helicity tracks (among other things) and those from 20 May 2013 (the date of the Moore tornado). Dan D. and I both remarked that we had a bad feeling about this day, but since it was likely to be a local chase and the last of our season, we didn’t want to pass it up. Dan D., Youngsun J., Jing C., and I left the NWC parking lot around 4 p.m. and headed west toward Tuttle on OK-37.

We stopped on U.S. Hwy. 81 between Union City and El Reno, where we saw a low-contrast wall cloud near Calumet slowly being squeezed to death between two merging HP storms. Based on the visual presentation, we thought there was a high likelihood that the storms would merge destructively and gust out, or that the HP storms would hide any tornadoes in rain. We decided to venture closer the wall cloud, in hope of catching a glimpse of a tornado before it became a rain-wrapped mess. We drove west on Reno Rd., stopping to observe an outflow surge just west of Heaston Church. A new circulation did appear – a gray barrel set against the emerald green of the HP core. That circulation quickly tightened into a mesocyclone and translated quickly toward the east. I ferried our passengers east with it, until my husband cried out, “Tornado!” I glanced over my left shoulder and saw a white cone dangling from the meso, scraping across the fields about two miles to our north.

Frame grab of the El Reno, OK tornado
This is a frame grab of my only video of the 31 May 2013 El Reno, OK tornado, shot from my dash cam just before we fled east. The white cone in the foreground is a sub-vortex of the gigantic El Reno tornado.
A few minutes later, I backed into a driveway halfway between Fort Reno Rd. and Brandley Rd., facing north. By then, white funnels carouseled around the tornado less than a mile to our northwest. We figured we would have a perfect view as it passed by us to the north. My passengers bailed out and began to shoot video and photos. I monkeyed for a moment with my dash cam, trying to aim it at the tornado, before jumping out to get my tripod and HD camcorder out of the hatch.

Then I hesitated. Something was wrong. The tornado wasn’t moving from left to right – it was moving from right to left, and getting bigger. My husband came to this sinking realization the same moment I did, and announced, “It’s coming toward us! We gotta go!” I shouted, “Back in the car, now!” Youngsun and Jing didn’t hesitate for an instant; everyone was back in their seats within five seconds. I shot out of the driveway and gunned it east. My husband instructed me to turn south at the first available opportunity, emphasizing, “We’re in trouble!”

Vehicles were scattering to the east and south like a flock of startled quail. As I turned south onto Brandley Rd., frustrated by the poky vehicles in front of me, a sobering thought entered my mind. I wasn’t carrying three passengers in my car, I was carrying four. (I was seven months pregnant at the time.*) As if to drive the point home, a Braxton-Hicks contraction chose that moment to give me an eye-popping internal squeeze. I made a conscious decision not to look back over my left shoulder at the tornado, despite the rising alarm in my husband’s voice as he shouted, “Robin, it’s right behind us! GO!!!” I tuned out everything else, and focused my consciousness like a laser beam on the road in front of us. I had to keep my head, and keep the car on the road. We would do no good getting into a rear-end collision or sliding into a ditch in these circumstances.

Inhale, exhale, drive. I wove around a vehicle parked in the right lane, containing two unrestrained dogs. As I passed, a woman looked at me from the drivers’ seat with eyes as big as teacup saucers. My huband rolled down his window and screamed at her, “You’re in the path!” She gaped back at us as though shell-shocked.

Inhale, exhale, drive. The chasers driving south on Brandley Rd. steadied out to about 45 mph. To my passengers, this was excruciatingly slow. I was aware they were shouting at me to drive faster, but I concentrated on maintaining my distance from the vehicle in front of me.

Inhale, exhale, drive. Every window and door seal whistled, and I felt my ears start to pop. The pickup in front of me began to fishtail. I grimaced, preparing to watch – and then dodge – a wreck. Fortunately, the driver pulled out of his or her slide and straightened out.

Inhale, exhale, drive. Brandley Rd. terminated with a turn to the east at SW 59th St, near a farm house with a lengthy driveway. As I rounded the corner, a woman came dashing down the driveway toward the chaser train, waving her arms frantically, a dog racing ahead of her. Dozens of headlights glared from my rear view mirror; I judged that I could not stop without causing a chain-reaction pileup. I would have to run over the dog to avoid it. I sucked in a breath, fully expecting the meaty impact of the dog’s body against my front bumper. Fortunately, the dog pulled up short. To this day, I do not know what that woman was doing. Looking for information? Trying to catch a ride?

Inhale, exhale, drive. At some point we jogged south one more mile to OK-152 (my husband has the GPS log) and entered Union City from the west, where sirens saturated our hearing with their discordant wail. I began to loosen my grip on the wheel as it became apparent that the tornado had lifted north. We came to the four-way stop at the intersection with Hwy. 81. Despite the disaster unfolding just to the north, cars were obeying the law, coming to complete stops, and waiting their turn before proceeding. As I crossed Hwy. 81, I could see a line of headlights stretching north to the horizon. I do not recall observing any contraflow at that intersection, but then again, I wasn’t looking for it.
My husband’s video:

We could see the dark barrel of the mesocyclone now well away to the north, past I-40. I began to relax a little, and we resumed chase mode. We followed OK-152 as far as Mustang, where we decided to call off the chase after seeing that the hook of the storm was entering the Oklahoma City metro.

We spent about an hour woolgathering in a gas station parking lot, figuring out what to do next. We judged that going north to I-40 was not a good idea, because the tornado had clearly crossed it, and we expected it to be closed and jammed with cars.

In our hasty departure from the driveway earlier, my husband Dan misplaced his iPhone. The chase ended, we decided to go back and get it. As we backtracked west on Reno Rd., we made a couple detours around flooding and downed power lines that crossed the road. As we passed one damaged home, I smelled gas. Just west of Brandley Rd., where we had turned south earlier, a 5-ft diameter tree had toppled over and was completely blocking Reno Rd. I had sobering vision of the tornado tossing that barrier in front of our car, trapping us and preventing our escape to the east. We submitted a storm damage report on SpotterNet and circumvented it to the north. A house under construction, which we had passed earlier, was battered by debris, and its Tyvek wrap flapped heavily in the rain.

When we located the place where we had stopped to watch the multiple vortices, my husband hopped out in the cold rain to hunt for his phone. We had already heard reports on commercial radio of injuries and deaths along I-40, and images of the storm were already flashing on the national news. My husband and I sorely wanted to post an update to social media so that our friends and family would know that we were not among the casualties. As Dan searched outside our Prius V in the pouring rain, I suddenly heard the familiar iPhone ring tone. I scrambled down to the floor and discovered his phone hiding beneath the passenger seat, the name “Dad” glowing on the screen. My husband returned to the car, soaked to the bone, and managed to call his dad back.

Civilization reacquired, Dan posted the update, and we decided to head home. Reports of traffic gridlock in Oklahoma City caused us to take a rather circuitous return route via Hinton, Anadarko, and Chickasha. We pulled back into the NWC parking lot well after dark, encountering Jeff Snyder poring over screenshots of freshly-acquired RaXPol data.

Later that night, as we prepared for bed, Dan got a call from our friend Rebekah Labar. She was chase-cationing in Oklahoma after a successful two-year stint in the Kwajalein Atoll, and was finding lodging very hard to come by in the aftermath of the storms. We put her and her chase partner up for the night in our humble home, and traded stories about the day’s events into the wee hours of 1 June.

In retrospect, I saw some bizarre behavior near the El Reno tornado that I have never seen previously. My impression – which I emphasize that I cannot quantify – is that the storm chasers fleeing the El Reno tornado were relatively orderly and law-abiding, whereas local residents fleeing the tornado were acting more out of panic. I inferred that certain vehicles were local because the drivers carried along dogs and young children, companions storm chasers don’t usually carry. At least one vehicle contained unrestrained children standing up in the back seat, as if the parents had put the children in the car in great haste. I did not find out until later that a certain television meteorologist had advised on air for EL Reno residents to flee south, which explains the gridlock we observed along U.S. Hwy. 81. In light of that revelation, the woman running from her house and trying to flag down chasers makes a bit more sense. Was she trying to flag down a chaser and hitch a ride out of the area? I will probably never know. The caravan of chasers escaping south and then east along OK-152 drove single-file, at exactly the same speed, 45 mph. We all seemed to recognize that we had to form a relatively slow-moving “train”, or else we might cause a chain-reaction pileup on a gravel road with a tornado bearing down, a river to our south, and no alternate escape route.

Subsequent analyses of the events by Skip Talbot and Gabe Garfield (among others) lead me to believe that the El Reno tornado may have “licked” the back end of our vehicle with an inflow jet as we fled south along Brandley Rd.. I distinctly remember a “whistle” as a strong, obtuse gust of wind penetrated every seal in our car, and I experienced a half-popping sensation in my eardrums. Although I did not see it on account of my deliberate tunnel vision, my husband says he observed rapid formation of condensation in the field immediately behind us. Our default escape direction was east and south. Had we known a priori the path of the storm, we might have instead headed west to escape the tornado’s southeastward swoop.

Neither our encounter with the El Reno tornado, nor the highly-publicized deaths that it caused among chaser ranks, have diminished my enthusiasm for storms, tornadoes, or storm chasing. The fact that I have not gone chasing since then is due to both meteorological and personal factors. I intend to continue chasing storms, give rain-wrapped tornadoes a wider berth than their naked brethren, and always keep my head on a swivel.

* In July, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy, apparently none the worse for wear after his in utero close encounter with the El Reno tornado. And that, dear readers, explains the relative dearth of postings since then!

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