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Anatomy of May 3's F5 tornado

By Ken Raymond Modified: May 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm •  Published: May 1, 2009
It wasn't the deadliest tornado ever.

Wasn't the biggest, either, or the longest lived.

No one can say for certain, but the National Weather Service says it probably wasn't the most powerful tornado. Somewhere in the past, before there were measuring devices and wind-speed estimates, other twisters likely produced higher winds.

But the F5 tornado, and the 50 or so others that swept through Oklahoma on May 3, 1999, was plenty bad.

Picture the F5 — a churning pillar of swirling debris as much as a mile wide, wrapped in clouds, rain and lightning and crawling blindly across 38 miles and four counties, devouring everything in its path. With top wind speeds in excess of 300 mph, the tornado was so strong it peeled asphalt from roads, toppled deep-rooted trees and turned newly-built brick homes into acres of rubble.

Against such force, fragile humans stood little chance. Thirty-six people died as a result of the F5 tornado that tracked across Grady, McClain, Cleveland and Oklahoma counties. In all, 44 people died from the May 3-4 tornadoes in Oklahoma. Many more were injured. According to the weather service and The Oklahoman archives, here's how it played out: About 6:25 p.m., an F3 tornado descended to the ground south of Amber, sprawling to cover three-quarters of a mile as it tracked toward Bridge Creek. The area was sparsely populated, with most damage to trees and barns. The tornado grew in ferocity as it entered Bridge Creek about 6:45 p.m. The F5 tornado tore houses — mainly trailer homes — to bits and killed a dozen people.

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