A Bad Day in Oklahoma

May 31, 2013 was like most summer days in Oklahoma — hot and muggy. At 6:03 PM a tornado touched down eight miles southwest of El Reno. By the time it passed by just south of town (along Interstate I-40), it was a 2.5 mile wide monster.

Radar clocked the highest windspeeds ever measured on earth within this tornado — 302 miles per hour. The National Weather Service eventually rated it as EF3.

Why Wasn’t it Rated EF5?

The Enhanced Fujita scale assigns an EF5 rating to tornados with a sustained windspeed greater than 200 mph. But EF ratings are actually determined by aessing the extent of damage left behind, not by radar readings.

Since the tornado’s track was mostly through open farmland, the damage was limited. The observed damage only indicated an EF3 rating. But, for those directly in its path, it was like Armageddon.

The Survivors Hid Under the Stairs

At the stockyard east of town, eight employees of Gilmore’s Kitchen had shoo’d away their few customers and locked up. With warning sirens blaring, they tried to leave by the back door. All they could see was hell on earth coming straight for them.

One employee got in their truck and tried to outrun the twister. They didn’t make it.

The other seven ran back inside and huddled together beneath a steel staircase. Screams and prayers were drowned out by the storm’s roar and the sound of the two-story steel building being ripped apart.

The following silence was almost deafening. The seven pushed their way out from under debris to discover the only recognizable remnant of the restaurant and offices was a single steel staircase — their hiding place.

The preceding was told by one of the seven who wishes to remain anonymous.

Even the Pros Were Caught Off Guard

Unbelievably, only six cattle were lost at the stockyard (out of 160). But professional stormchasers didn’t expect the size, strength, and unpredictable movement of this record—setting storm.

Several stormchasers, including a crew from the Weather Channel, were caught off-guard by the storm’s unexpected movement. Four stormchasers died that afternoon.

What Have We Learned?

Researchers have determined that the 2013 El Reno tornado was actually a huge rain-wrapped multiple-vortex tornado with up to four funnels at various times. It also followed an unusual track from west-northwest to east-southeast. Then it turned northeast.

These factors made it nearly impossible to predict the tornado’s movement with any degree of certainty. Stormchasers found themselves too close and in the storm’s path. By the time they realized the danger, it was too late.

By the Way …

A company was selling steel above-ground storm shelters at the stockyard that afternoon. When the tornado hit, two employees jumped into one of their shelters. Even though the shelter wasn’t bolted down to the concrete, they emerged unharmed.

If a two-mile wide monster is heading your way, what would you do? If an above-ground shelter sounds good, the folks at Atlas Safe Rooms would love to have a chat.

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