May 03, 1999: Oklahoma Tornado Outbreak

posted in: 1999, Chase Highlights | 0

If you live anywhere in the world outside of Oklahoma, May 3rd, 1999 is a date most likely not significant from any other date.  If you live in Oklahoma however, it is one of those dates that you’ll always remember where you were and what you were doing.  The tornado outbreak that occurred on this day is often the baseline that other tornado outbreaks are compared too.  This event pre-dates our tours, but it was such a significant tornado event in both Oklahoma’s history and in my personal life that I’m including it here in the highlights. And, I may later add another event that happened in April 24 1993 as well, although I was a tornado “victim” of that storm, and not a storm chaser in those days.  Both of these events played a crucial role in my personal development towards chasing storms.

In 1999, I was involved in local emergency management in northeast Oklahoma.  As part of my daily routine to identify any potential risk that would affect the area where I live, I would check the morning convective outlook from the Storm Prediction Center to determine if there was a risk of severe weather.  The first thing I noticed this morning was a high risk area covering central and western Oklahoma.  I lived just outside of this high risk area in northeast Oklahoma, north of Tulsa (where a slight risk area was in-place).  I begin looking at as much weather data as I could get to determine if a possible storm chase event was in my future.  I would typically run to central Oklahoma to chase storms and then get back into my home area by late evening to help as an emergency management volunteer by the time the storms made their way into our area.  Today looked like a good candidate for a chase.

I left the house at about 11 am, making the two and half hour drive to Oklahoma City.  Once there, I found a public library so that I could use their computers to get an update on weather.  At the time, I did not have wireless data options to get any kind of weather info while in a vehicle, not even radar information.  All I had with me was a cellular phone, a radio scanner to monitor amateur and emergency frequencies,  and a camcorder, that was the extent of my “set up” in those days.  I decided to drive to Chickasha to wait for further development.

Cutting to the chase, after sitting in Chickasha for a little more than an hour, a lot of radio chatter began happening as severe weather spotters were talking to the skywarn net controller at the Norman NWS office.  A tornado was in-progress and from the best that I could tell at the time, it was heading in a direction that would take it just to my north near Bridge Creek.  I drove up I-44 towards Bridge Creek and within about 5 miles or so of the Bridge Creek interchange, I was finally able get my first view of the tornado.

I have a love-hate relationship with the US Interstate system, they’re great roads when you need to get somewhere fast, but they’re horrible roads to be stuck on when you’re storm chasing as they have extremely few options and it can be easy to get pinned in a traffic jam, especially during severe weather events.  However, I-44 this day would give me the best views of the tornado that I would get all day.  I pulled completely off the interstate and grabbed some video, it would be the only video that I was able to document of this entire event. The rest of the day I was driving and trying to focus on safety issues and less worried about my camera.

I watched the tornado as it ripped through Bridge Creek tearing down power lines with a large blue arc each time.  I was pretty sure at the time that I was witnessing an F5 tornado and that lives were being forever changed, some lost, this was a bad event and it was only going to get worse before this tornado would rope out as it was going strong with no visible signs of weakening.

I was listening to KWTV over FM radio by the time I made it to Newcastle, just behind this monster tornado.  I remember meteorologist Gary England doing everything he could to put the seriousness of this event in front of his audience, “Get underground now, it’s the only way to survive this deadly storm.”   From my viewpoint, Newcastle also took a direct hit.  There were more power flashes, and every now and then one of them would be so bright that it would illuminate the rain core so much that it would give me a glimpse of the tornado it was hiding.

In Newcastle, Interstate 44 turns from a northeast/southwest road into a north/south road.  As the storm moved past the town, I realized it was on a collision course with Moore, just to the north of Norman.  I begin to weigh my options as I didn’t want to chase this monster tornado through a metro area due to safety concerns.

I thought hard about ending my chase here and trying to help those who I could.  But, there were calls being made via the radio to the public to not go into the damage areas as they wanted as few “outsiders” as possible in the area and needed to get emergency vehicles and crews into the area. I realized that while my intentions would have been proper, and while I had proper training to assist those needing help, my training also told me that I would have just been an additional liability to emergency teams and that I shouldn’t “self deploy”.   I had other concerns as well, I needed to get east of Oklahoma City so that I could get back to NE Oklahoma, just in-case I was needed later that evening as an emergency management volunteer in my home area.

I decided my chase would likely end here and turned south because doing north seemed impossible due to the tornado crossing the interstate ahead of me and littering it with debris.  I drove to Highway 9 and then east over to Highway 177 where I went north in Tecumseh.  I was listening to the radio during this drive and hearing from helicopter pilots that Moore took a direct strike.  Entire neighborhoods were wiped away, some down to their foundations.  The south side of the OKC metro looked like a war zone.  It was the middle of the afternoon, and it was nearly pitch black outside due to the 60,000+ feet of clouds over the area.

To my surprise, by the time I made it back to I-44 I had caught up with the same storm, still traveling northeast and still paralleling the Interstate.  Tornado warnings were being issued all over the state, there was another supercell that had formed near El Reno that was producing a tornado.  Another near Geary, traveling northeast towards the Enid area that was producing a tornado.   I rejoined the turnpike (I-44) and went northeast towards Chandler to get ahead of the storm once again and I had planned on staying ahead of it for the rest of the day as this was my road home.

Somewhere in the vicinity of chandler, I’m not exactly sure where, I realized that the storm was once again producing a tornado.  By this time, it was getting late and dark and I didn’t want to take any chances with this tornado overtaking me, so I shot back to the northeast, driving past the outlet shopping center near Stroud, it would be the last time that I ever saw this shopping center for after this evening, all that would be left is the concrete slab upon which it was built.  I drove home, the tornado later became a threat to the Tulsa metro as well and caused some structural damage on the west side of the metro.  But, Tulsa had luck in her favor this day as the tornado roped out in the vicinity of Sand Springs before the supercell rolled across northeast Oklahoma