MOORE — Standing within a stone's throw of Plaza Towers Elementary School the day an EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore and destroyed the school, a middle-age man repeated a theory many in Oklahoma share.
The man, who declined to provide his name, said he'd lived in Moore since 1991. He'd been through May 3, 1999. He'd been through the one in 2003.
“I've lived here a long time,” the man said that afternoon. “It's the river. The storm comes off the river and forms these huge tornadoes. I've read about it before.”
The man, who claimed moments before that he'd helped dig a baby out of the remains of a 7-11 in Moore, was sure “the river” was the cause of the tornadoes. Or that it at least had something to do with the twisters.
He is not alone.
During a recent town hall-style meeting in Norman, residents of the city relayed a different sentiment about the Canadian River.
Ann Riley, a Norman resident since 1974, said she bought a storm shelter after the May 10, 2010, tornadoes that tore through Norman.
Before that, she said she and her family had “bought into the lore that Norman couldn't be hit by a tornado.”
“We'd always heard that,” Riley said. “I think they said it was because the river kind of wraps around Norman.
“It seems silly now, it was probably just mathematical probability.”
If you've lived in the Oklahoma City area for any length of time, you've probably heard many theories and superstitions about tornadoes. Where they come from. Which cities are safest. Which ones aren't.
Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, likely has heard all the theories.
As for the Canadian River and its significance to the formation of tornadoes west of Moore, Smith said he doesn't believe there is any.
Smith said there is no scientific data that makes him believe that a river, or any other natural feature, causes or alters the path of tornadoes.
“They don't cause, change, stop, turn ... tornadoes,” he said. “Especially rivers with no water in them.”
According to Oklahoma Forestry Services, the Canadian River is 760 miles long and runs through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and all the way across Oklahoma. The river joins the Arkansas River roughly 40 miles west of the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.
Smith said the city of Moore, which lies just to the east of the Canadian River, isn't sitting on some doomed patch of land.
“Scientifically, there is nothing special about Moore to cause tornadoes to happen there ... more than they happen anywhere else,” Smith said. “It's just chance, I mean, it's just the way it's worked out.
“That seems weird, but there is no scientific explanation for it.”
Smith said scientists know a lot about tornadoes and what conditions are like when they crop up, but “we only know a very short history of tornadoes.”
“When we plot all these lines on a map, that's only 50 to 100 years worth of tornadoes,” he said. “If we knew what a thousand years of tornadoes looked like, they'd probably be evened out and there wouldn't be clusters.”
Aside from rivers, Smith expressed serious doubt that other natural features can affect weather systems capable of producing tornadoes.
He said “there's just no evidence that relatively subtle changes in terrain or geography affect tornadoes.”
“That storm that produced the (May 20) Moore tornado was probably 60,000 feet tall, 10 to 12 miles high, it was massive,” Smith said. “(Natural features) would just have nothing to do with what it's going to do ... a bluff, a bend in the river or the interstate or anything else like that.
“Tornadoes cross rivers, they cross mountains ... into downtown areas, whatever.”
Beliefs will likely persist
Stephen Tremaine, a lifelong Norman resident, said he's heard that tornadoes strike west Norman more often than the rest of the city. He also has heard that the Canadian River “protects” the city.
“And you hear the person who thinks because there was some Indian tribe here at some point that they're not going to hit us here,” said Tremaine, 27. “You've heard all of that over the years, and you kind of wonder how people react to that knowledge.”
Smith said theories he hears about tornadoes are usually based on a cumulative family history.
“It's been handed down for generations, for some people,” Smith said. “Either it's their personal experience or something else, but there's nothing scientific about it.”
CONTRIBUTING: Staff Writer Bryan Painter