For most people reading this, the date of May 3, 1999 will have no meaning. For weather enthusiasts/storm chasers like me and others who were living in OK & south central KS that day, it’s a date we won’t soon forget. That day, the largest tornado outbreak in the history of OK took place. Over 70 tornadoes, 40+ fatalities, approx. 700 injuries, and thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed. It was truly a remarkable meteorological event. That day alone, I saw five tornadoes. It was also one of the most exhausting chases I’ve ever been on.
Several things about that day really have stayed with me all these ten years. On my way from Tulsa to my target area (which was between OKC and Lawton) I passed the Tanger Outlet Mall in Stroud, OK. The mall was a popular shopping destination for residents in the area and, if I had some extra time, I often made a stop there on my way from Tulsa to points west. I vividly remember looking over at the mall as I passed it on I-44 and for a moment, considered stopping there for a few minutes. Then the sense of urgency pulled me out of that lull and I kept going. The days weather data kept going round in my head. I knew we were in for a big day and I didn’t want to waste any time. Little did I know that the next time I saw the mall several hours later, it would be in ruins from a tornado that damaged every store.
Somewhere to the west of OKC, there’s a rest stop on I-40. When I got to that area, things were really starting to light up. The supercell that would heavily damage the OKC metro was already tornadic, and I felt I’d best stop, regroup, and adjust my target area. As I sat in my minivan listening to NOAA weather radio, a local television station in OKC, and watched the sky, I could hear the ‘clang clang clang’ of a truck driver who had parked in the same rest area. The driver was bent under his truck and, with a hammer of some kind, was beating the daylights out of something. I guess if you can’t fix it with the proper tools, get a hammer. I felt rather sorry for the poor fellow. Who knows what was wrong with his truck, how far from home he was, how far he had to go, and if he knew what kind of weather was about to pounce on top of him.
Three wall clouds, five tornadoes, and a shower of golf ball size hail later, I was headed back east on I-40 due north of Anadarko, OK. I was torn between pursuing the storm to my north, or watching another which was rapidly intensifying to the south of Shawnee, OK. I chose the latter since I knew that it might move toward Tulsa. As I continued east, I saw one of the most amazing displays of “anvil zits” I’ve ever seen. The upper portion of the tower to my north was absolutely a strobe light with lightning. For those who don’t know, “anvil zits” is a storm chaser’s slang term for rapid staccato lightning that occurs where the updraft tower meets the thunderstorms anvil. These are very rapid and repeating flashes of lightning that almost give the effect of a strobe light you’d see at a concert or club.
Going back up I-44, it was obvious to me that the storm to my southeast would continue on being severe for quite some time. I was also listening to the radio and trying to digest what had taken place in the OKC metro. The outbreak was far from over and I was wondering what else was in store. But, fatigue was setting in and I knew if I didn’t rest for a bit, I’d be driving half asleep. At mile marker 177, I pulled over at a rest stop, turned all but my NOAA weather radios off, closed my eyes, and slid down in my seat. I was exhausted from all the adrenaline. Time passes. I wake up. Now the supercell thunderstorm that was to my southeast was northeast of me and headed for Tulsa. Not good. So, off I go after my nap and head northeast. “Gee, that’s funny. There’s vegetation from trees along the interstate.” , I mumbled to myself as I got closer to Stroud, OK. Suddenly, I’m at a dead stop. Traffic in front of me has been stopped for some reason. Was it a wreck? No, it had been a tornado…and a pretty good size one too…almost 1/3 mile wide. Suddenly it hit me that as I was snoozing away back at that picnic area, a large tornado crossed the interstate just six miles in front of me…and I SLEPT through it…warning and all! After a gas leak had been taken care of, traffic began to move. I was in a hurry to catch up with the storm and concerned about what could happen in Tulsa. Suddenly, more vegetation, debris…and the Tanger Outlet Mall…in ruins. So ironic that just a few hours earlier I’d considered stopping there. If you’d told me earlier in the day that a tornado would destroy the place, I’d have said you were crazy. When it was over, I’d crossed four damage paths on my way back to Tulsa and didn’t make it home until almost 4:00 a.m. the following morning.
The Norman, OK National Weather Service has a nice site up on the outbreak at http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/wxevents/19990503/. You can find all the information you want concerning this weather event including some very important information regarding using underpasses as shelters that may save your life. Quite a few of the photographs on my website are also from that storm chase.
Ten years, a decade past. A lot has happened. Much of it I’d love to experience again, and not a little that I wish had never happened. But at least when I crawled out of my minivan early the next morning, my home was still in one piece.