24 May 2011: Lengthy recap

I did not chase on 24 May 2011, a day that many Oklahomans will find difficult to forget. I had signed up months before for an NSF workshop entitled “Science: Becoming the Messenger.” My husband, in jest, admonished me for signing up for an all-day workshop in late May: “You just know there’s going to be a big tornado outbreak that day.” Of course, it was just as likely there would not be.

About week ahead of time, I could tell that an interesting weather scenario was, indeed, in the offing for 24 May. A trough was progged to slide out of the Rockies that Tuesday, and all the other parameters (shear, moisture, and lift) appeared favorable for a significant severe weather event. It looked similar to 10 May 2010, when a north-south oriented line of supercells swept across Oklahoma at ludicrous speeds (50-60 mph), forcing VORTEX2 teams to scramble to collect coordinated data sets. The NWS – WFO for Norman had been generating public information for days in advance advising people to be prepared for another tornado outbreak. With 10 May 2010 still fresh in the minds of many, and the tragedy at Joplin still in the headlines, Oklahomans took notice.

I am not one to cancel long-held plans based on forecast models for the next week; I’ve been burned more than once when such a setup unravels. In addition, one of the workshop presenters was Chris Mooney, one of my favorite bloggers and part-time host of the Point of Inquiry podcast (which I listen to with some regularity). In addition, I’d seen multiple tornadoes in southern Oklahoma the previous Saturday, a day when many others did not. So, I stuck to my guns and did not cancel my workshop attendance.

In the meantime, my husband was tapped to navigate the NOXP mobile radar for NSSL’s storm intercept team. (Don Burgess, the usual coordinator for that vehicle, was off delivering a keynote speech at the IEEE radar conference in Kansas City.) Before I left the house that morning, I left him a note on the mirror, wishing him good luck and many safe deployments.

When I arrived at the NWC, the NSF workshop organizers told us that the ~100 of us were going to learn how to craft messages for TV, radio, Powerpoint, blogs (hello!), and social media, including Twitter. Those of us with Twitter accounts were asked to “tweet” the workshop using the hash tag #nsfmessenger, which the organizers monitored from the front table. I’ve been using a Twitter accounts to reflect links to my posts on this blog, but on this day my Twitter feed veritably exploded with key points made by the organizers and presenters.

Just before lunch, a female researcher from Africa got up to practice her message that female African scientists are sorely in need of funding. She concluded with what she said was an old African proverb, “When you educate women, you educate a nation,” since women transmit their learning to their families and communities. I could not independently verify that this was indeed an African proverb, so I put quote marks around it before I tweeted it. The quote was re-tweeted, first by people within the workshop, and then by many more people outside the workshop. I got a few sarcastic tweets back to the effect of, “Umm, when you educate women, you only educate 50% of a nation, dumbass.” I chose to let these trolls stew in their own ignorance.

After lunch, awareness of the weather situation outside began to wax. I used the workshop hashtag to link other workshop participants to weather information. My attention became increasingly divided between the workshop presentations and radar images on my laptop showing a line of supercells taking shape in Western Oklahoma. The warning polygon colors quickly shifted from “severe thunderstorm” to “tornado” as spotters began peppering the maps with reports of wall clouds, funnel clouds, and finally tornadoes. Initially, all of the storms vectored past us to the north, but more convection took shape to our southwest, and one of the resulting supercells storms was aimed right at Norman One of the workshop organizers asked me if it would be safe for him to drive back to Stillwater. Initially I said yes, but after another KTLX volume came in, accompanied by a solid cluster of tornado reports crawling toward Guthrie and Stillwater, I changed my advice and told him to stay.

Mid-afternoon, I was astonished to receive an e-mail from Jon Hamilton of NPR, requesting an interview for a story about tornado safety. I e-mailed him back saying I was willing to do so, but that it would have to wait until tomorrow (Wednesday), and he agreed. (The interview took place on Wednesday and the resulting story aired on Thursday.) I’m just tickled that I was sitting in a workshop on how to communicate science to the media, and I got contacted by a member of the national media for an interview right in the middle of it! I did, indeed, fill out an “interview triangle” worksheet and had it in front of me while I was on the phone with Mr. Hamilton. I can only imagine that the workshop organizers were pleased to have this immediate feedback.

Around 4:00 p.m., the University of Oklahoma sent out a robotext to its staff indicating that the University was going to close at 4:30 p.m. Many offices, citing heightened awareness of the weather situation, had already sent their staff home. The workshop organizers suspended our activities. (I was just about to have a practice blog post vetted by Chris Mooney – darn!) Instead, I led Chris and some of the other NSF workshop participants up to the NWC observation deck to watch the storm move in.

There wasn’t much to see – just a boring gray veil of rain approaching from the west. I knew, based on RadarScope, that it presaged much worse things – like large hail. Then the tornado reports started materializing, some of which were from NWC staff and students out chasing. A tornado warning was issued that included the NWC, and the CSOs made a PA instructing everyone to move downstairs. I escorted some of the NSF workshop folks down to the first floor auditoriums, which I was astonished to find were almost entirely full already. People had brought in their families, dogs, cats, and even a few overnight bags to ride out the storm. Everyone had to sign in at the front door, per usual procedure. The rooms were orderly, but crowded.

Mast-cam image of Goldsby/Blanchard tornado

Image from a camera mounted on the mast of the National Weather Center, which I believe shows a dissipating tornado to the southwest, over Goldsby/Blanchard. Image courtesy of P. Laws, K. Keys, and the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences. Contrast has been enhanced to show the funnel.

Once the NSF visitors (many of whom were from Washington, D.C. and other less tornado-prone locales) were ensconced below ground, I went back out to the atrium. Reports began to come in via TV and ham radio of a tornado southwest of the NWC. I briefly considered chasing in my own personal vehicle, but reports of rain-wrapped tornadoes all over the metro area made me hesitant to chase without an experienced partner in the passenger seat. Looking out the windows in that direction, I could see a barber pole updraft approaching the NWC, and hail that I estimate to have been 1″ to 1.5″ in diameter began clacking loudly against the NWC windows and skylights. I yearned to go up a floor or two to get a look at the sky over the trees, but decided to be a good role model and not create any more headaches for the CSOs, who were having enough trouble preventing curious people from wandering around.

I took a peek back in the auditorium, which by then was stifling and malodorous from the wall-to-wall hordes of anxious people and wet dogs. When reports indicated that the tornado southwest of the NWC had dissipated, some people tried to leave, only to be corralled back inside because the circulation reorganized to spawn another tornado east of Norman, near Pink, OK. When the “all clear” was finally given, the mass exodus to the parking lot reminded me of that after a major league sporting event. I applaud the CSOs for their calm handling of the crowds.

Do I regret not chasing on a “no duh” day when almost all of my friends went out and saw tornadoes? Yes and no. Each tornado is unique, and you never get the opportunity to see the same tornado twice. However, it was also a day that challenged even the most experienced chasers. A friend of mine (who teaches spotter safety) ended up in an extremely hairy situation when he unintentionally strayed too close to the Hinton / El Reno / Piedmont tornado. He was uninjured (thank goodness), but lost his chase vehicle and a large amount of camera gear as a result of the too-close encounter. I can’t help thinking that it could just as easily have been me, especially if I’d gone chasing alone.

Once the danger had passed, I got a text message from my husband that the NOXP radar had made a successful data collection on the tornado near Canton Lake, OK. (Link goes to my husband’s video.) Later, I learned that Howie’s group, operating the RaXPol and MWR, both collected data on the Hinton / El Reno / Piedmont tornado. While great / unique data collection can never replace people killed by this tornado outbreak, I hope that the research that results from those data will help to redeem some of the tragedy. It may never be possible to reduce the tornado fatality rate to zero, but little by little, we unravel tornadoes’ secrets.

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