Chuck Doswell's

Thoughts after 03 May 1999

Created: 08 May 1999 Last updated: 06 August 1999 - added some damage photos and text to support them.

Note: This is simply a collection of thoughts in the wake of the disaster in the Oklahoma City metroplex on 03 May 1999. It certainly does not represent anything or anyone other than me, so don't go blaming my employer, or griping to my bosses. Nothing in here is their fault and this is my personal Website so the principle of Free Speech applies. If you don't like something I've said here, have the courage to complain to me about it!

NOTE: This material and many of the images herein are copyrighted - ©1999 C. Doswell. Any use must be cleared with me. Some of the images have been digitally enhanced to attempt to show things that were almost invisible in the original frame captures ... the original Hi-8 tape was dubbed onto VHS and then onto digital videotape (where I can do frame captures easily), so the quality of these frame captures is not very good, especially when the original video was shot in low light (in close to the tornado, it got pretty dark!). The damage photos were taken on official business and, hence, are uncopyrighted and public domain.

The events on this day simply exceeded my wildest imagination. I've chased storms for 27 years and have seen many tornadoes. But I've never seen anything like the atmospheric spectacle of 03 May 1999. I had a chance to ride with the tornado that eventually devastated the Oklahoma City metroplex (hereafter referred to as the "OKC tornado") from its initial development just north of Chickasha, all the way into the western part of the city.

1. A short account of my chase

I left my home about 5:30 p.m. after coming from work and getting my cameras, drove west from Norman on Hwy 9 to the intersection with Hwy 62. From there, I went north on Hwy 62 to I-44, north of Newcastle. Then, southwest along I-44 to just north of Chickasha ... then a U-turn and back along I-44. When I arrived at a location on I-44 just north of Chickasha, a tornado was already in progress under a spectacular storm. This tornado was a few miles west of me was moving northeastward. Shortly after I got set up on a tripod, this tornado dissipated. However, it was clear that the storm was not finished, with continuing cloud base rotation ... and the new tornado developed relatively quickly (at about 6:30 pm). My path along I-44 ended up being the ideal intercept route, with no turns, no stop signs, no cross traffic, no railroad tracks ... nothing to keep me from riding along nearly parallel to the storm's track. Shortly after it formed, it was doing damage in Amber, OK (the power flash in the image). Mile after mile we traveled together, increasingly accompanied by a host of storm chasers, including two of the Doppler on Wheels trucks. The tornado hit the small hamlet of Bridge Creek (as seen via a host of power flashes in the video) in what I thought (erroneously) was uninhabited country. I wasn't really thinking about the threat to OKC right away, but then I began to notice that the tornado and its parent storm had reached a steadiness that I've never seen before. Normally, tornadoes fizzle after 15-20 mins, but this one just kept on grinding away, like a giant mulching mower ... taking deadly aim on OKC.

Preliminary map of 03 May 1999 tornadoes in Oklahoma [National Weather Service (NWS), Norman].

Soon, driving through the rear-flank downdraft (RFD) a good part of the way, I began to notice debris falling from the air onto my car as I drove along, including some pink fiberglass insulation. Even though it was still in more or less open country, someone was being hammered! Then, finally, as we (the tornado and I ... and the caravan of storm chasers) neared the city, there was talk on the radio of a "Tornado Emergency" ... perhaps "Warning" is no longer effective, since we've overused it so much. In any case, that description certainly captured the essence of the moment and it apparently got everyone's attention. Power flashes began to occur as it entered the outskirts of the city. At the time, I thought the tornado had turned to the right, but in reality, the road had turned left! It crossed I-44 not very far ahead of me. No longer a turbulent "wedge", the tornado was changing its form into a wide cone-shaped funnel, dark gray against an inky black background. The cone then evolved into a stubby cylinder, with wild cloud base rotation above it. Power flashes became more frequent, and the dark gray sides of the funnel were streaked with brown ... something I have come to interpret as dirt and debris from human structures. Suddenly, to the left of the cylinder, I could see a second narrow funnel, which evolved into a multi-vortex tornado in its own right, as it rotated around to the other side of the cylindrical funnel. My batteries were dying, and the last view of the storm I captured on video was a stubby cylinder. Then, the pair seemed to merge into another giant wedge, as the storm and I continued to part company. I got off on 149th Street Southwest, and tried to go east, but I was blocked, first by state troopers and then by tornado debris from where the tornado crossed the street. My chase was over ... my camcorder batteries were used up, and I was suddenly exhausted. The tornado, however, still had a long way to go, through Moore, then Del City and Midwest city, crossing I-35 and then I-240. The worst of its destructive path was yet to come when I had to break off, but chasing in cities is problematic, especially when you're behind the tornado and encountering its track (as well as police roadblocks, etc.).

I returned home more or less the way I came. Everything at home was normal, but the contrast with the "world" I had left only minutes earlier was so utterly abnormal, I was dazed and a bit hyper at the same time. I reviewed my video as I made a VHS duplicate. My video had certainly captured faithfully what was in my viewfinder, but it couldn't possibly show anyone that compelling, utterly astounding ride I had. For about 30 miles and roughly 45 minutes, I was in a wild world, where all my 27 years of storm chasing had not prepared me for what I was going to witness. I came home pretty certain I had seen my first F-5 tornado (I had, of course), and I was also certain I'd seen my second killer tornado. Pleased about the former, I'm not pleased about the latter. I'd have preferred the ride without the devastation.

2. Some observations from my chase

Perhaps the most obvious thing I saw during the chase (apart from the storm itself) is the obsession with overpasses as safe places to gather, that a certain well-known video has created. Although the notion of an overpass as a tornado shelter may predate the events on 26 April 1991, the famous video shot by a TV crew on that day has become the "evidence" that many people seem to count on when considering a plan of action on the highway. Some also park under overpasses to protect their vehicles from hail. I offer the following thoughts about overpasses as safe havens:

  1. At times, these overpass areas get pretty crowded and on occasions, I've seen people literally parking on the highway under these overpasses, either partially or totally blocking the highway right-of-way. Apart from being illegal, this is incredibly dangerous. I can envision a big 18-wheeler charging out of the rain and slamming into one of these "overpass parking lots" at high speed. I also can imagine fights breaking out (perhaps even ending in violence, given our national penchant for it) for the prime safety spots under a crowded overpass. On the OKC tornado day, people were already jamming the overpasses on I-44 as I headed southwestward, at least a half hour before the tornado approached! I guess they felt they needed to stake their claim early. On the way northeast, people were overflowing the overpasses, some of them standing on the embankment watching the approaching tornado. What could they have been thinking?
  2. Another facet of this is that most TV viewers have no idea that the famous "overpass" video is laced with either misconceptions or outright lies. The tornado was not moving faster than a vehicle operating at Interstate highway speeds. If the video crew gave the impression the tornado was overtaking them, this was either an incredibly stupid assessment of the situation or an outright fabrication (to cover their reason for being there ... to get dramatic tornado footage!). Further, the tornado did not hit the overpass, although it certainly passed close to it), in spite of what the narrator has said. Finally, the tornado was not a violent tornado at the time it passed. The cameraman remained on his feet, filming throughout the event ... this is pretty clear evidence that they were not hit by a violent tornado. Had that camera crew and the citizens they talked into accompanying them under the overpass experienced a dead-on hit of a violent tornado, they would have not remained in place, and even if they had, they would have been pummeled by flying debris. In the OKC tornado, a woman under an overpass on I-44 was blown out and killed ... perhaps the first known "overpass" fatality, but not the last. Another woman was killed at the Shields Boulevard overpass across I-35. People need to stop using overpasses as tornado (and hail) shelters.

I hope there is an especially hot and painful place in the hereafter for those who have perpetuated the idea of overpasses as safe havens. My message is simple: do not use overpasses as storm shelters! Doing so puts you in a stationary, basically exposed position of high danger, not safety ... and parking under them is dangerous (as well as illegal). This raises the question of what to do when encountering a tornado in a vehicle. I'll get to that later.

3. Safety issues

Given a large, violent, long-track tornado moving through a metropolitan area, the death toll from the OKC tornado was probably not far from the minimum for such a devastating event. To me, the key issue for folks in "Tornado Alley" is not the warnings (although they might occasionally be a problem, because meteorological science is far from perfect). Tornado forecasts and warnings in this part of the world tend to be pretty good and this case was not exceptional in this regard. Although occasional events sneak past the system, they are virtually never going to be events as large and powerful as this one.

The real problem with this situation ... a violent (F4 or F5) tornado in a population center within "Tornado Alley" ... is finding appropriate shelter. I've explained elsewhere that the chances of experiencing the most violent winds of a violent tornado are incredibly small, even in the heart of "Tornado Alley". So most folks are going to experience winds that are less than what is called violent, even if they are in the path of what ends up being classified as a violent tornado. This means that in a well-constructed frame home, interior walls will be left standing and the odds are that people sheltered within those walls will survive (although they might be injured, of course). For most of the victims of the OKC tornado, they survived by doing just what we have been telling folks to do: go to an interior room, preferably without windows. Bathrooms are good because the piping tends to reinforce the walls, closets seem to benefit from extra framing timbers in the walls. The idea is to seek protection from flying debris, which is what is most likely to kill or injure someone. Get under an interior stairway, if one is available. In a bathroom, get in the tub and cover yourself with something. In a closet, lie or sit down and cover your head. Unfortunately, in violent tornadic winds, even interior walls are swept away, such that there is no safety from those extreme winds except below ground ... or, in a "safe room" (a specially-reinforced, windowless interior room solidly attached to the foundation/slab). Survival in violent tornadoes without a shelter (below ground or an above-ground "safe room") is basically a matter of good luck; possible, but not dependable.

The folks at Texas Tech's Wind Engineering Research Center have been advocating such interior "shelters" for a number of years, in view of the increasingly common lack of basements and/or outdoor tornado shelters. Finally, it has become clear that these special shelters work (there were some in an near the tornado paths on 03 May, but none of them experienced the violent winds, so they weren't truly tested), and the President (along with FEMA) has encouraged the people of Oklahoma to build them into their rebuilt homes. This is a very sensible plan and I hope that more than the victims will consider including safe rooms or in-ground shelters ... every city in "Tornado Alley" needs to have a plan to encourage new construction to include interior shelters in homes without basements.

Thus, the safest thing most folks can do is stay in their homes and seek the best shelter they can find. If this includes a shelter that will protect them from the violent winds they might be unlucky enough to encounter, then so much the better. Without such shelters becoming widespread, the OKC tornado outcome (roughly, one fatality for every $20 million damage) is probably typical of what we can expect in such circumstances.

Safety thoughts to ponder:

  1. If this tornado had hit a metroplex with less adequate preparation, a metroplex outside of "Tornado Alley", the chances are that the death toll would have been much higher. This has not happened recently, as discussed elsewhere, but it's only a matter of time! Oklahomans are weather-conscious folks, because their experience tells them that they have to be. This means that years before 03 May 1999, the seeds of life-saving were planted and they bore their fruit during the event. The whole process of alerting folks to the threat begins with preparedness training by local offices of the National Weather Service (NWS) and by the communities themselves. Many communities in "Tornado Alley" have Severe Weather Preparedness Weeks or something of the sort, before the spring season begins. Then, the Storm Prediction Center (part of the NWS, in Norman, OK) issues "Outlooks" for up to two days in advance. This allows for planning for staffing by NWS offices and advance preparations by the local community emergency managers. The local NWS offices issue the warnings, typically for whole counties or large parts of counties, once severe weather is spotted, either by human eyes or by radar. Finally, the local spotters provide the "last line of defense" for those communities who have spotters. These volunteer spotters are trained months and years before such an event and can be a vital link in the chain. Since the so-called NOAA Weather Radio is not widely used, the dissemination of information from the NWS to the public is mostly via the media. In the OKC tornado, this process (an integrated warning system) worked about as well as it is possible to imagine it doing. Thus, the source of the fatalities is the simple fact that many people simply had no safe place to go, or for some reason failed to find proper shelter, and this will happen inevitably when violent tornadoes interact with populated areas, irrespective of the efficacy of the warning process.
  2. As I've noted elsewhere, there are many situations in which people might find themselves not at home and, therefore, uncertain about what to do. Schools should have plans worked out well in advance and rehearsed several times per year. Businesses should also have plans. If yours doesn't have one, then you should insist on having them develop one, in collaboration with the Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) in the nearest office of the National Weather Service. Personally, I think that every public building, especially schools, day-care centers, hospitals, and nursing homes, should have easily accessible shelters, plans for their use, and NOAA Weather Radios.
  3. Obviously, mobile home parks should either have a shelter for their residents or at least have some plan for their residents. I believe that sporting and recreational facilities are extremely vulnerable and virtually none of them have a plan, worked out with the local WCM, to protect their patrons ... citizens and communities should not tolerate this inexcusable lack of preparation on the part of those recreational businesses! Community emergency managers should be bringing this need to the attention of local government, noting their legal liability in the event a disaster happens.
  4. There is a definite problem with telling people how to deal with tornadoes in motor vehicles (hereafter, "cars" is understood to mean all motor vehicles). At the moment, many people believe that the main instruction is to abandon your car and head for a ditch. Taking shelter in a ditch should be considered only as the last, desperate alternative. In what follows, I don't have anyone's "approval" for these rules. They only are my recommendations:


Note that being in an automobile in a tornado is not a good location. If the car is tumbled, it's going to be flattened and the interior often will not be survivable. Airborne vehicles are obviously not out of the question and represent a potentially fatal situation. I've seen cars after a tornado that had been wadded into unrecognizable balls, where any occupants would clearly have been killed. I've also seen cars that literally were torn into pieces and the debris spreadwidely about the countryside ... also not a survivable situation.

Currently, it's not clear that if you experience a tornado, you're better off in a car or in a ditch (where you run the risk of being hit by flying debris and being airborne). Research into this issue remains to be done. I think my recommendations (above) are the best alternative I can think of at the moment, but research may offer new insights someday.

Estimating tornado motion

Recently, it's apparent that people are very confused about which way a tornado is moving. I'm uncertain about the source of this confusion but there are some simple ways to get a clear picture of tornado motion:

I want to wrap up this part of the discussion by saying that no community in North America east of the Continental Divide is entirely safe from violent tornadoes. In fact, the danger increases with distance from "Tornado Alley" because of complacency and lack of preparation. Further, the odds are that the warning process will break down at some key point as you move away from "Tornado Alley". The system for dealing with these storms is most likely to work poorly where it is used rarely. The history of tornadoes in North America is replete with disasters that were experienced by people who believed falsely that tornadoes happen somewhere else, to other people. I know of no reason to believe that we will never have another single tornado that kills 100 or more people .. as a nation, we have made great strides in dealing with tornadoes, but we should not become victims of our success. We've been lucky so far, but the clock is ticking!

4. The media and science policy in the U.S.

As soon as the tornado spun itself out, it was clear that a media "feeding frenzy" was going to descend on us. For the rest of the week, we scientists were doing interviews of various sorts. While microphones were being stuck in the faces of the victims, we were attempting to get across some sort of science message in the midst of the media hype.

I'm known to be unfavorably disposed toward the media. They almost always come in with a fixed agenda, an "angle" to the story they want to tell, that may be silly, or ignorant, or simply sensationalist, whereas we scientists are trying to use the opportunity to get the word out about what we are doing as scientists (and, yes, as storm chasers, too). In an interview, however, you're at the mercy of the questions asked. You typically are not given much latitude to give your side of the story ... rather, you're there to lend credibility to the story as dreamed up by the producers and the "on-camera talent". They often want to make you seem more "famous" than you really are, just to make themselves and their presentation that much more "important"-seeming.

For several days, then, the media sharks circled about, dashing in to engulf "sound bites" when and where they could, feeding off the very real human tragedy of this event. As scientists, we are accustomed to addressing our scientific questions with long, careful analysis and trying to express ourselves with caution in order to provide precise assessments. The media, on the other hand, want 5-second "soundbites" ... an in-depth TV story is five 3-minute segments during a week, sandwiched around the news from Yugoslavia, the shootings from Columbine, CO, and so forth. How can you treat a scientific concept in 5-second sound bites and 15 minutes worth of analysis? What can you really expect to get across? Not much.

I find the media "talent' often to be contemptuous of their audience, saying (off-air, naturally) that their audience is too stupid to understand anything more than that "sound bite" and have the attention spans of 5-year old children. If that's an accurate statement (and I have no way of knowing), I wonder how the public could come to this? Hasn't this been a self-fulfilling prophecy? Hasn't TV and radio created this by 40 years of increasingly superficial treatments of every topic? Isn't "instant analysis" so much the norm because the media made it so? Isn't today's short attention span a result of the fast, bang-bang-bang pace of TV, so that everything else seems slow as molasses by comparison?

After the President's visit, the OKC tornado moved off the front pages around the country. It's not highlighted or even mentioned in the news anymore. Cover the "feel-good" speech, some money has been thrown hurriedly and haphazardly at the problem ... on to the next crisis. Now the tornado's only yesterday's news ... fit only for the back pages at most, and buried in the "feature" section occasionally. Of course, for the victims, the shift of national attention doesn't take away the devastation in their lives. They must move on, somehow, through the psychological and physical trauma, perhaps for years to come. They're not going to be following the next story to be at the center of a feeding frenzy by the media sharks ... many of them don't have a TV to watch. Personally, I find the whole spectacle pretty disgusting. The media should be ashamed.

The President's speech brings up the issue of science policy in this country. We at NSSL have worked for decades on the tornado problem. It isn't something we did because of some "feeding frenzy" ... rather, it's been decades of slow, painstaking research on a shoestring budget that shrinks constantly from inflation. Now, it seems that the President isn't even aware that NSSL developed the radars that were so essential in getting out the warnings for the OKC tornado ... in his speech, he credited the University of Oklahoma for this development! And we at NSSL, according to the chain of command, are working for the President, even though he doesn't seem to know who we are or what we've done. Isn't that just wonderful for our morale?

Our brief moments before the cameras and microphones are our only hope to sell the message that what we have done in the past has made a difference in the OKC tornado, and will make a difference in future tornadoes (and other severe weather). If we fail to convince someone we're worth keeping, we may even vanish someday, in yet another round of budget reductions. Research isn't glamorous or sexy or "instant" ... in spite of the occasional appalling pronouncements by less-scrupulous scientists who get to parade their "trash science" before the media, for personal aggrandizement. Research isn't confined to new equipment, either. Lots of important research is just plain old dogged, unglamorous, no bells-and-whistles work. Quality scientific research needs resources ... not huge resources, like the billions of dollar's worth of missiles and bombs we've recently rained down on Yugoslavia ... but we need steady , reliable support. If we had the budget of a single high-profile movie (like Twister?), we could accomplish more and do so faster than we can at the moment. Instead, our research limps along with outdated equipment; we depend on what amounts to charity to keep at the forefront of research. Up to the time the NWS donated a WSR-88D radar to NSSL, we had no research-quality radar with which to develop the next generation of weather radars. The NEXRAD radar system that formed the basis of the NWS network of WSR-88D radars was developed and tested by NSSL, and yet we had to depend on the generosity of the NWS to even have a modern radar with which to continue research and development! The budget provided by our own agency wouldn't support such a system without the help of the NWS. At the moment, our budget is insufficient to pay all the staff and keep the buildings open and the lights on ... if it weren't for continuing support by the NWS (and other agencies), we'd have to downsize by about 30-40%.

Good science isn't done by crisis management ... it's the result of years of unglamorous work. That work has yielded real public benefits but no media darlings were there when the results were implemented. What we do to give the public the fruits of our labors isn't normally "sexy" enough to get the attention of the media. Apparently, to survive in today's world, scientists need better P.R. If that's what it takes, I hope we can find a way to do it.

It's clear, after the President's speech, that he did not get good information. Tornado intensity "dilution" is a silly dream at the moment. I know of no serious scientific effort to reduce the intensity of tornadoes. Yet, it's mentioned in the President's speech. What is this and where did it come from? The President's advisors (and those of all politicians) are political appointees, virtually all of whom are ignorant of science, in general, and probably have absolutely no idea what the science of tornadoes is all about. Yet, here we are, apparently setting science policy at the highest level of government on a path to try to mitigate tornadic windspeeds. So where do these ideas come from? Apparently, the political advisors get their information from the media!! Thus, science policy is, effectively, being set by the media sharks! Does this make sense? Not even remotely, to us scientists ... but we don't control the process, which is driven by the budget and the politics of the budget.

Is this how we, as a nation, should be setting science policy? I don't think so. Science policy should certainly be subject to public scrutiny; the public has a clear right to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. I'm not in favor of making science policy immune from that sort of consideration, but surely we can come to some rational approach that permits science to proceed with a semblance of year-to-year continuity. We should not be re-setting our scientific objectives on the basis of every crisis to come along, and it shouldn't be a bouncing political football ... headed north this year, and south the next. And we certainly shouldn't be allowing the media to be in such control of the national science policy. This is a path toward chaos and gradual destruction of the valuable programs we've built so painstakingly. Scientists need to do a better job of informing folks what we do and how we do it. I think the public is smart enough to understand that they are getting considerable value for their dollar from our research. Perhaps what we scientists need to do is get better at getting that message to the public!

Added: 17 May 1999

Updated: 05 August 1999

Personal thoughts after walking tornado tracks

In the heart of the violent damage, in Moore ... a wasteland is all that remains

As it turns out, I was selected to participate in the Building Performance Assessment Team (BPAT) for the tornadoes of 03 May 1999, sponsored by FEMA, one meteorologist among a diverse group of engineers and other related disciplines. It has been our job to walk the paths of some of the tornadoes, including the F-5 tornado that hit parts of the Oklahoma City metroplex (including Moore, Del City, and Midwest City). We also looked at Mulhall, Oklahoma; Stroud, Oklahoma; Haysville, Kansas; and Wichita, Kansas. Our preliminary report will be out in a few weeks, with a final report expected in roughly six months. What follows is not an objective, technical report ... rather it is a very personal statement of some of my impressions.

We spent Tuesday through Saturday looking at the impacts of tornadoes in several cities. The tracks have certain common factors. I am acutely aware by now of the smell of a tornado track. This musty smell is hard to describe and I don't know its origins. Perhaps it's the smell of wet ceiling tiles, paper, rotting food, and insulation. It penetrates my nostrils and I gradually become so accustomed to the odor because of its ubiquity that I hardly smell it. At the end of the day, though, it lingers in my nostrils. I smell it even as I type this first draft, despite my recent shower and the hours that have passed since I was last in it.

Everywhere, the rubble has a monotonous sameness: shattered framing lumber, shards of insulation, broken glass, drywall boards, shelving units, refrigerators, shingles, collapsed brick veneer, jagged leafless branches from trees. I'm astounded at the huge fraction of 2 x 4s and other framing boards ... this seems to make up a lot of the rubble ... the things that held our world together now lie scattered about and broken into pieces of all sizes. Many of these shards of framing lumber had been deadly missiles; some still remain, stuck in the roofs or walls or the surrounding ground like so many darts or spears. The holes they left as they knifed through the walls we think protect us are indirect evidence of their passage, even if they passed completely through.

Vehicles in various stages of destruction sit in heaps or intrude where vehicles were never intended to be. They rest on their sides, or upside down; some are crushed into unrecognizable wads of metal, waiting quietly for removal, like beached whales. America's love affair with the automobile ends here, in a tornado track, with some of them becoming missiles contributing to further destruction as they themselves are destroyed. Vehicles don't provide much safety, unless they take you out of the path of a tornado (see above), in spite of our apparent trust in them! I see these hulks as death traps, not places where I should feel secure or powerful.

I'm also struck by the huge amount of "stuff" that fills the rubble piles: toys, Christmas decorations, magazines, vases and lamps (mostly broken), televisions, boxes of baseball cards, food from pantries (jars of pickles, bags of chips, cans of beans, spice bottles), stuffed animals, video cassettes, compact discs, photos in frames, decorative items of all sorts and descriptions. What bothers me when I see this "stuff" is that so much of it looks like the "stuff" in my house. Here it lies, scattered for all the world to see, but destined for a landfill, soon. These are the things that fill our houses, that make each house unique; in the aggregate, comprising a common connection among us all. Somehow, this makes these people's experience more real to me. These, after all, are real people, with "stuff" that looks a lot like my "stuff". How can we who have not experienced this hope to understand what the victims have suffered? Perhaps we can never share their real feelings until we've shared their experience; they're not cold statistics, they're not sound bites on the evening news, they're not disembodied voices on the radio, they're not flat black and white pictures in the paper. They're real people, who are somehow going to have to deal with the event that has shattered their homes (in some cases, their lives) and spread their "stuff" out in the piles of rubble for me to see. In some odd way, this "stuff" is the most tangible, and saddest reflection of the real people, at least for me. The boards and bricks and crushed panels of sheetrock just don't feel very personal. Toys and other personal items resonate with their owners, forcing me to contemplate: What happened to them?

The analogy with a "war zone" is compelling. What was whole becomes junk in seconds, just as experienced by the victims of bombing raids ... but the atmosphere's very indifference renders the whole thing surreal. At least with a bombing raid, the intent is understandable. Here, hubris and humility alike are swept away by the uncaring atmosphere. The tornado doesn't care about what it encounters ... it's not evil, just unfeeling. Does that make it easier or harder for the victims to cope? I don't know.

I get the impression that many of the victims are searching for meaning in this disaster, but from my intellectual perspective, they are simply unlucky. I also sense they don't want to hear that this event was just a roll of the dice. It was the most important tornado in their lives, period. How can this be just an ordinary event? Forget objective assessments ... this must have been an F-6 tornado! "I survived an F-5!" is written on the walls of a house that experienced, at most, F-3 damage. What stories will that person tell the grandchildren?

Everywhere we see spray-painting on the walls that remain, or on signs. "Gone with the wind!" "For sale ... Cheap!" "A 'fixer-upper' "! I'm reminded that humor is a defense mechanism, a way of coping with life. Flags are everywhere ... American flags, Oklahoma flags ... some sort of proud spirit remains. Sometimes we see flowers at the devastated homesites. Is this marking someone's passing? People everywhere share so much, it's hard to understand why we seem to get along so poorly, sometimes. Other spray-painted messages tell us "All O.K." "Thanks to the volunteers" "We'll rebuild!" Heartfelt messages, apparently intended for the passer-by to take heart and not to be concerned for the victims. Where does this strength come from? Like the "Christmas spirit", these feelings should last the whole year, for all of us, and for all of our lives ... but they don't. At one point in Kansas, we heard stories of looting. How can anyone be so callous as to benefit from someone else's misfortune? Perhaps my good fortune precludes my understanding of the looter's mentality, but looting tornado victims just seems beyond belief.

Occasionally, we meet the living survivors, working at rebuilding or perhaps simply salvaging what they can. Each one has a story to tell, and we listen, but cannot truly comprehend. I grope for the words to provide some comfort, but I feel horribly inadequate. For all my education and even sympathy, empathy escapes me. I've not been where they are and I can only wish them the best and try to be a good listener as they spin their tales of survival. How can I understand? I simply can't. I'm embarrassed that my knowledge of storms and objective perspectives can't help them to cope with the total devastation that has been visited upon them.

Sometimes, they describe events that are contrary to my understanding of physics, but I'm not about to dispute their version. Even if I am right, it's not a time to insist on correcting some misconception. Some tell stories of miraculous luck that led to their survival ... one man was spared by a mere 12 inches from being crushed by a van that crashed into his home. He didn't even hear it when it fell right next to him, because the roar about him was so loud. How many miracles could we find, if we tried?

The huge disparity between the devastated tornado path and the nearby neighborhoods, untouched and with life seeming to proceed as if nothing has happened, lends a strange feeling to the whole experience. One minute you're stumbling through rubble amidst a scene of complete demolition ... get in your car, drive a block or two, and the next minute everything's changed back to banal normality. Somehow, it seems wrong that all of this normality can coexist with the rubble path. Is that wasteland just on the other side of those trees? Surely not! It jars your sense of reality. Which is real? Sure, intellectually, I know that both are equally real, but it taxes my brain's capacity to cope. The gradient between disaster and normality is too steep. The edge of the abyss is everywhere ... here, a home with minor shingle damage, next to one with its roof and part of its exterior walls flattened, next to a slab with a driveway and sidewalk, both leading to ... nothing. How many people must be grateful for survival but perhaps bothered by "survivor guilt"? Why was one spared and someone next door devastated?

I see odd things that are hard to understand, everywhere. How can this wall be blown out this way but that tree be uprooted that way? It's hard to imagine just how these things came to be. We see skid marks that suggest a car was pulled out of its garage by the storm, against the locked parking brake of the car. The skid marks end in the street, but no car remains at the end of the marks. Was the car dragged by the storm, or was it simply pushed or dragged away later by the crews working to clean up the streets? Too much time has elapsed to be certain. The complexity of these events, that take place in mere seconds, means our attempts to piece things together from the limited clues that remain can be difficult.

"Manufactured" homes ... goodness, it's awful to see what a tornado does to mobile homes. Mobile homes are the key to the American dream for folks without much income, but they are no place to be in (or even close to) a tornado. We find the debris from a mobile home scattered in a ditch more than a hundred yards from its original site, and the tornado missed the mobile home! The whole place simply went airborne in the screaming inflow, even as a nearby frame home only experienced roof damage!

If survivors find "sight-seers" to be aggravating, those survivors should understand that people who haven't experienced this should get as close to it as possible! There's no way that media coverage conveys the same feelings as being in the track and seeing the whole scene, not selected pieces. How can we appreciate your situation if we don't see it for ourselves? Yes, "sight-seeing" seems ghoulish, but at its heart, I think the intent is a good one. I think most people want simply to understand.

A bathtub sitting amidst the rest of the debris, in Moore. Did someone ride it out in this tub?

I've never enjoyed doing tornado damage surveys, mostly because of my guilt feelings over being fascinated with the storms that produce this destruction. Mostly, I've tried to avoid them. I'm not going to apologize for my fascination with storms ... I've discussed that elsewhere, but I'm also grateful for this experience. It's helped me comprehend that I can't comprehend the experience without experiencing it myself. That alone made the trip worthwhile.

If any survivor reads this, I want to make a promise: this storm will come to represent one of our best ever opportunities to learn about such storms and how they affect humans. There is reason to believe that many good things eventually will grow out of the tragedies on 03 May 1999. New programs, new cooperation among Federal, state, and private agencies that will lead to improved planning for such events, perhaps better warnings, and improved mechanisms for dealing with them after the fact. Your loss is not without meaning! Even if the beneficiaries of the future don't know your name and can't ever grasp the impact of this event on you and those you love, I believe that you can take some comfort that today's losses eventually will mean fewer losses from such events in the future. It may not seem like much consolation, but the future will be in your debt, whether anyone knows it or not. Some of us won't forget that progress was made at great cost ... your cost.

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