You know how I said that sometimes what you ask for isn't what you want after all? I'm saying that again to the jillionth degree.
Friday, May 31st was my last real storm chasing day before going home and I wanted it to be a good one. SPC issued a moderate for severe over central and eastern Oklahoma and conditions were ripe for tornadoes. While sitting in a gas station waiting for storms to initiate, I jokingly said, "come on, atmosphere! Give me a show on my last day!" I got much, much more than I bargained for.
We left Ada, OK around noon and headed west. When we stopped for gas, Keith noticed that towering cumulus were forming to our north and starting to show up on radar, so we headed toward Union City. There were three separate storms that began to merge, and had three separate mesocyclones. The storm remained this way for the rest of the day, and ultimately went on to produce three tornadoes, one from each mesocyclone.
After turning north on Route 81, we pulled onto a dirt road a few miles north of Union City and waited. The storm was visibly rotating and the inflow winds into the storm were the most intense that I've ever experienced. It started to rain so I got back in the car, and Ross had to help me open my door because the wind was too strong for me to do it alone without it ripping from the hinges. The meso on the westermost part of the storm was wrapped in rain and very difficult to see into. Dave and Keith both said that there had to be something in the rain because of the strength of the inflow and the signatures on radar. While standing outside the car, I looked north and noticed the ridiculous line of chasers and locals who were driving past and pulled over to watch the storm.
Keith and Dave decided it was time to drop south and get out of this beast's way, but we could stop and snap a few pictures and video along the way. They both said that we would be going under the edge of the meso, and would take a couple of the rain curtains. No big deal. This wasn't anything any of us hadn't experienced before. We pulled out and began heading south, stopping alongside a large field. As soon as we stopped, we looked over to a clearing in the rain, and the tornado was right there. The colors coming out of this storm were so incredibly intense, that they almost seemed peaceful. How could such a beautiful cerulean blue be violent?
The storm had taken a turn to the south and was coming straight for us, and at a much faster speed than it was moving previously. Because of this, Keith began telling Ross to drive as fast as he could. Now, Keith is THE calmest navigator while chasing. He never yells, never freaks out, and always lets the driver know exactly what's going on and what to expect. Not this time. As the rain curtains started rotating faster, the wind got stronger. Ross was flooring the gas and we were only driving 60 miles per hour. Keith kept telling Ross to drive faster. Cars were pulling out in front of us, stopping in the middle of the road, and the rain was blinding. The car was moving sideways and Ross said that he could feel it starting to tip over. I remember saying, "my ears are popping, my ears are popping!" and I knew that was a very bad thing. Then, a barn or house, I don't know which, blew apart. For a split second we all expected the house to blow into the road and we would be absolutely fucked. But instead it was sucked into the tornado, about 300 yards in front of the car. I said, "that house. oh my god, the house. oh my god, oh my god." Ross was driving as fast as he could and it didn't seem to be fast enough.
Except, it was.
Keith was so rattled that he declared us done with this storm, and we started dropping south. There was so much gridlock. The weather reporters were telling people that they couldn't survive a tornado of this magnitude unless they were underground and if that wasn't a possibility, they should drive south. We went south until there was no more traffic, and no more threat of storms. As we came away from the storm, my husband texted me and asked me to check in every 30 minutes, just in case. He also told me that a tornado warning was in effect for Madison County, Illinois, and that a tornado was in progress near St. Louis. I said, "someone check the radar for St. Louis. Please. Check it right now. Please." Keith pulled the radar up on the computer and I knew as soon as I saw it that I had reason to worry. Keith confirmed that it was, in fact, heading right toward Matt's hometown (everyone is fine, thankfully).
Once we were south enough, we stopped at a gas station in Lindsey, OK. The emotion of the past 2 hours hit me as soon as I got out of the car. I walked into the women's room, closed the door to the stall, and started to cry. I was completely overwhelmed. I walked out and stood by the car. Keith came out of the gas station and I turned to him and said, "I just keep seeing the house..." He replied, "Samara, say what you have to say. Put it out there, get it out. And then let it go. If you don't let it go..." It was wise advice. I'm still trying to let it go.
We were lucky. I didn't realize just how lucky until Sunday morning when we found out that Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young died in the tornado. The National Weather Service just announced that they've upgraded the El Reno Tornado to an EF5, and radar data shows that it was the widest tornado on record at 2.6 miles.
When I look at this map, and guesstimate where we were (I think right inside the bottom part of the tornado track as it crossed Route 81) before leaving, I am so grateful. We all believe that the tornado was an EF5 when it passed behind us on the road as we drove south. I'm thankful that Dave and Keith trusted their instincts and we left when we did. The Tornado Hunters from The Weather Channel were only a minute or two behind us and a little further north on 81. If Dave and Keith didn't make the call when they did, our story would have been very different. Had Ross not been a rockstar behind the wheel of the car, our story would have been very different. This was a humbling experience, and a terrifying one. I can close my eyes and conjure the image of the house getting sucked in toward the tornado at any time. I try not to, though. I'm trying to let it go.
We take risks when we chase. You cannot put yourself in the path of a violent tornado and expect it to be a risk-free endeavor. There is inherent risk. We also take calculated risks, such as the one we took the day of the rogue hailstone. We (nearly everyone in the chaser community) miscalculated the risk on this storm. No one expected it to expand as rapidly as it did; to accelerate as rapidly as it did; to turn the way it did. Some of the best chasers in the country miscalculated as well, and paid for that miscalculation with their lives. We were lucky. We weren't smarter or better. Just luckier.
My heart goes out to the friends and families of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young.