Oklahomans knew the tornadoes were coming long before they arrived.
On Monday, at least 18 twisters carved a path of destruction from the top of the state to the bottom, injuring more than 100 people and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Tammy Rider, 29, of Newalla, and Wilbern Patterson, 55, of Oregon, died in separate EF-4 tornadoes, packing winds up to 200 mph, that hit near Little Axe and Choctaw. Four tornadoes received EF-3 ratings, indicating wind speeds as high as 165 mph.
The tornadoes were swift, especially for May, and born of mammoth storms that merged and separated in a way that surprised even veteran meteorologists.
"Border-to-border tornadic supercells moving 50 mph into a population-dense area,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman. "To come away from that with as few casualties as we have is pretty remarkable.”
Luck played a part in that, but so did advance warning. Nearly a week before the twisters struck, Norman meteorologists sounded the first note of concern: "There are some indications of a potentially significant increase in the risk of severe weather next Monday.”
By the weekend, that concern had grown into something closer to certainty. Storms would hit the Oklahoma City metro area Monday afternoon.
"The computer models are getting better at identifying the ingredients of these severe weather events further in advance,” Smith said. "And the forecasters are getting better at interpreting things.
"By midmorning Monday, we were confident enough to say that there would be tornadic supercell thunderstorms in the state by 4 p.m. ... and they’d be hitting the Oklahoma City area right around rush hour.”
‘The house exploded’
The first tornado warning was issued at 2:22 p.m. for Woodward, Woods and Alfalfa counties, but more than an hour passed before twisters struck, extending from Kay County into Grant County.
"These came down pretty close in time to each other,” Smith said. "They were definitely the first of the day.”
The northernmost Kay County tornado was an EF-3 that destroyed a three-story house five miles northwest of Braman, the weather service reported. Two miles to the south, an EF-1 with gusts up to 85 mph struck.
The next to hit was a monster, an EF-4 up to three-fourths of a mile wide, which tore a 23-mile path from Moore to Harrah.
The twister overturned a recreational vehicle onto Patterson, killing him. It tore apart the Love’s Travel Stop at Interstate 40 and Choctaw Road and ravaged part of the Deerfield Estates neighborhood about 5:40 p.m.
Among the survivors were Air Force Sgt. Scott Thiels, his wife, Lisa, and their twin 11-year-old boys.
"We all lay down in the bathtub,” he said, "and after about 10 seconds, the house exploded.
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