Historic May: Tornado season unusually severe in Oklahoma, nation

Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar
EF 2 tornado damage was reported in Dale May 21.

It's no secret to Oklahomans that May marks the season opening for storms and tornadoes. However, even the most experienced residents are having to acknowledge the level of activity in the area over the past month has been unusually severe.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center reports there were more than 500 tornadoes in May — more than three times last year's figures for May, and more than half of all reported tornadoes in 2019 so far.

One of those hit close to home.

Pottawatomie County Emergency Management Director Don Lynch said the Dale Tornado on May 21 — rated an EF2 by the National Weather Service — was the only one to touch down in Pottawatomie County.

Though most area residents remain somewhat watchful and prepared during stormy weather this time of year, that day gave many residents an abrupt wake-up calls at 4:26 a.m. Tuesday, as notifications of imminent extreme alert were delivered via cell phone.

Tornadic activity was being reported in the area — though Shawnee wasn't the target.

It's bosom buddy Dale, however, wasn't so fortunate.

Just northwest of the city, Dale was scraped by a tornado meandering its way toward Meeker in the early morning hours.

Lynch said his department was tracking the twister.

“The National Weather Service was able to get an indication of debris in the air to confirm the Dale tornado,” he said. “That tornado moved northeast toward Meeker.”

Most damage Shawnee experienced was due to high winds. Lynch reported two multi-family dwellings with minor damage at Burns Apartments and Howard Residence Hall, on OBU campus.

The storm was moving about 50 miles per hour, Lynch said, but the winds were between 50 and 60 miles per hour.

“It was two wind shear vortices,” he said. “These are winds that change direction and increase with speed the higher you go in the atmosphere.”

Stronger shear is often the catalyst for tornado development, Lynch said.

“We are fortunate that the storm cell was moving fast preventing a tornado from forming over Shawnee,” he said.

Lynch said due to that incident in Pottawatomie County a single-family dwelling was reported to have minor damage; three mobile homes were destroyed; two mobile homes reported major damage; one had minor damage; and one barn was destroyed in the area between the North Canadian River and Old Hwy 270 south of Tanner Road (Dale). One single family dwelling was reported to have minor damage on Hampton Lane, a mile and a half northeast of the Tanner Road damage, Lynch said.

Local

"It has been a busy two weeks and, while the damage we have seen is tragic, we feel fortunate that we have not had the consequences that other parts of the state have had,” Lynch said. “Our emergency management staff and volunteers have been vigilant in tracking and responding to the severe weather — as have other public safety and public officials.”

Lynch said the National Weather Service office, in Norman, reported Northwest Pottawatomie County was impacted the most by high water over the past two weeks.

The North Canadian River, winding a path through the county and the Shawnee area, has been a source of much of the flooding as banks have not been able to contain the rains or the overflow from up river.

“Flooding along the North Canadian River impacted roads and agricultural land along the river,” he said. “Pottawatomie County District 1 road crews were kept busy dealing with road closings and debris removal.”

He said episodes of flash flooding briefly impacted roads across the northern half of the county.

“I believe that all of us in Oklahoma have been subjected to so much stimulus about the weather these last two weeks that we are weary,” he said. “A couple of days without threats around here will be a welcomed relief.”

State

As many residents prepare to return to their homes and property damaged by floodwaters, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) encourages the public to use caution when re-entering their home.

Scott Sproat, director of the OSDH Emergency Preparedness and Response Service, said there are a number of factors for residents to consider.

“In the upcoming weeks, there will be many Oklahomans returning to damaged homes,” said Sproat. “We want to ensure the public’s health and safety as we continue to recover from the recent disaster.”

One thing to consider is if a flooded home has been closed up for several days, residents should assume there is mold and take proper precautions.

For more information about safety after a disaster, visit www.cdc.gov or www.ready.gov.

Nation

Under the leadership of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) continues to monitor and assist states with responding to devastating and damaging floods and storms in America’s heartland.

Record-setting storms and flooding this Spring have resulted in the closure of dozens of roads and bridges on the National Highway System (NHS) in states throughout the Midwest, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas and Nebraska.

“We are working closely with our state department of transportation partners to monitor the situation and stand ready to provide any aid the agency can to assist with getting impacted roads and bridges reopen for travel as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Federal Highway Administrator Nicole R. Nason.

The FHWA is coordinating with state department of transportation officials in the affected areas and stands ready to assist impacted states with any emergency relief needs they have, including funding, detour routes and any technical assistance for bridge and/or roadway repairs after water recedes.

Damages to roads and bridges caused by recent storms and flooding over the first half of 2019 are among the costliest in recent memory. Since January, FHWA officials directed $54.9 million in quick release funds to help states repair roads and bridges nationwide — roughly three times higher than the $19.8 million awarded during the same period last year.

By Lucille Sherman, Jennifer Borresen and Mike Stucka

GateHouse Media

The United States experienced a record-breaking rash of tornadoes in May, with hundreds of twisters reported from coast to coast.

It was the third-highest month of reported tornado activity since 2000. Eyewitnesses reported more than 530 funnel clouds to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center in May alone. The only other months with more reports were in April 2011 and May 2003.

Last month also saw a historic tornado streak, with eight twisters each consecutive day from May 17-29, according to NOAA data. The last biggest streak occurred in 1980 with 11 consecutive days.

In general, tornadoes are rare. Between 1,500 and 2,000 are recorded globally each year, with 90 percent occurring in the United States.

Because of this, there isn’t enough data to attribute the influx of storms to climate change or other causes, experts said, but they have worked to identify some patterns within the existing numbers.

For example, the United States now experiences fewer days of tornado activity than in previous years. But when those days come, they bring with them a greater number of violent storms.

“We’re having more outbreaks when they do occur,” said Patrick Marsh, warning coordination meteorologist for NOAA’s National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

Experts also see a change in the locations of tornadoes.

“There is a spatial shift that’s happening,” Marsh said. “We’re seeing a decrease in Southwest Oklahoma and Texas and an increase in Kentucky, western Tennessee and northeast Arkansas.”

Though May traditionally experiences a large number of twisters, the frequency of this year’s storms was much higher compared tornado seasons of the past.

“There are four ingredients you need for tornadoes: moisture, instability, lift and wind shear,” Marsh said. “We’ve had all four of these ingredients that we need for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes over the central United States.”

In May 2018, eyewitnesses reported 166 tornadoes to the NOAA. The May before that, they reported 295.

The NOAA must confirm all reports before issuing the final count. Once it does, the difference between preliminary and confirmed counts can vary.

“A lot of it has to do with how the tornadoes occur,” Marsh said. “Really long tornadoes are more likely to be counted multiple times. In the heat of the moment, we don't know if that's the same tornado or separate tornadoes.”

Texas bore the brunt of last month's tornado activity with at least 107 reported twisters. Kansas and Oklahoma saw the next highest counts with 81 and 63, respectively, followed by Missouri, Ohio, Nebraska and Iowa.

All seven of those states are located in “Tornado Alley,” a region known for having a disproportionately high frequency of tornadoes.

Some of the storms have been fatal. Out of the 38 tornado-related deaths this year, seven occurred last month.

Three fatalities were reported in Barton County, Missouri, and one in Adair County, Iowa, as a result of tornadoes on the evening of May 22. Two were reported in El Reno, Oklahoma, on May 25.

At least eight tornadoes barrelled through Ohio beginning late Memorial Day and continuing into Tuesday. One person was killed in Mercer County, Ohio.

The number of tornadoes is expected to decrease in June, which typically sees an average of 210 twisters, based on eight years of data. That’s compared to May’s average of 275.

Beth Burger and Ben Deeter of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.

Historic May: More than 500 twisters across the country