QUAPAW — Although technological advancements have provided meteorologists with tools to better predict oncoming tornadoes, the twister that tore through the far northeastern Oklahoma town of Quapaw on Sunday demonstrated gaps can exist in alerting state residents to the immediate dangers of severe storms.
The National Weather Service reported the tornado that killed one man in Quapaw on Sunday was an EF2 with wind speeds between 111 mph and 135 mph. The twister destroyed at least five businesses and 15 homes, and damaged several other buildings, Quapaw Fire Chief Billie Kerley said. Six people were treated at a local hospital for injuries resulting from the storm. The fire station also was damaged, Kerley said.
The tornado occurred without a National Weather Service-issued tornado warning for Ottawa County. Quapaw is home to about 900 residents, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Joe Sellers, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tulsa forecast office, said the lack of a tornado warning was not a result of malfunctioning equipment or human error — but rather an unavoidable gap in an otherwise effective system.
“I won’t say it happens quite a bit, but there are instances where you may have a severe thunderstorm warning for a particular area and really rapid tornado development occurs without a tornado warning actually being issued,” Sellers said.
“As the radar scans the atmosphere, it takes time to rotate and do all of its volume scans. By the time that data gets back to us, there may have been something occur that we didn’t see until right when it happened or right after it happened.”
Sellers said tornado and severe thunderstorm watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center when preliminary data indicates the possibility of such a weather event taking place. When radar or a spotter indicates that event taking place, the watch is switched to a warning.
Within its definition of a severe thunderstorm warning, the National Weather Service includes a threat of “tornadoes with little or no advanced warning.”
Twister not detected
About 5:30 p.m. Sunday, when the National Weather Service reported the tornado first touched down, a tornado watch and a severe thunderstorm warning were in place in Ottawa County, Sellers said.
Neither radar or a spotter could identify the tornado before it hit.
“Over the course of three or four minutes, as this thing evolves, there could be a rapid development,” Sellers said.
“Circulation develops in low levels, so a tornado could drop very rapidly.”
‘It can happen’
Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Norman forecast office, estimates less than 5 percent of tornadoes in Oklahoma take place without a tornado warning in effect.
“Tornadoes aren’t always possible in severe thunderstorms, but when we have the ingredients together like we had Sunday, it can happen,” Smith said. “It’s very uncommon anywhere in the state to have a tornado develop without a tornado warning in effect.”
Tornadoes that develop during severe thunderstorm warnings are generally weaker and short-lived, Smith said.
But as seen in Quapaw, they still can have deadly consequences.
He said that isn’t reason to hide in a storm shelter during every thunderstorm, but is a reminder to stay alert when unpredictable weather hits this spring.
“On those days when conditions are favorable for more intense storms, just pay attention and keep up with your local weather,” Smith said.
“Ultimately, we want people to be responsible for themselves. We are all responsible for our own safety. If you feel threatened by a storm and feel like you need to take shelter, by all means, do that. You don’t have to wait for any sort of warning from the weather service or TV station.”