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.” Two more twisters struck almost at once. An EF-3 about five miles northwest of Pink stayed on the ground for about nine miles, ending about five miles northwest of Shawnee. A more devastating tornado — another EF-4 — stretched at least 16 miles from Norman to Little Axe, killing Rider and injuring her three children. The twister hit their trailer home near Rock Creek Road and Harrah-Newalla Road. The Norman tornado spun cars near U.S. 77 and State Highway 9. Shoppers took shelter in the freezer of the Country Boy IGA grocery store. A second Norman tornado, an EF-1, ended about four miles southeast of the city before a more damaging EF-2 hit near Lake Thunderbird, destroying the Little River Marina.
‘I felt like I was going to die’Destructive EF-3 tornadoes hit portions of Tecumseh and Seminole. About 100 Tecumseh homes were destroyed, and about 400 in the area sustained damage. The hardest-hit area was on Highland Street, where Holly Starkey and her 61-year-old mother sought refuge in a residential bathroom. The twister destroyed the home. "It was so fast,” Starkey said. "Thirty seconds took everything.” Thirty Seminole families were left homeless. The Seminole Municipal Airport sustained an estimated $2 million or more in damage, not counting damage to planes. Yolanda Suarez’s trailer home was lifted and torn. The portion she was hiding in got pinned by a fallen tree. "I felt like I was going to die,” she said. As the tornadoes moved into the eastern part of the state, they diminished in intensity, falling into the EF-1 to EF-0 range. They continued to do damage, ripping the roof from the Boley police station, destroying mobile homes and outbuildings and downing trees and power lines. Two people were trapped in an overturned trailer at Brewer’s Bend Campground in Webbers Falls.
‘Unusual’ combination of storms’ size, speedBy the time it was over, three lives had ended: Rider, Patterson and an unknown woman who suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to get to a shelter. At least 118 people were treated for injuries. Of those, at least five were in critical condition. Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for more than two-thirds of Oklahoma’s counties. Millions of dollars of damage had been done, most in the space of moments. "We can have storms that move 50 or 60 mph,” meteorologist Smith said. "Those are usually in March or early April. And we can have tornadic supercells. Not as many as we had, but they’re not unusual. "Putting those two things together, a line of tornadic supercells moving 50 or 60 mph — that’s unusual. That’s really strange.”