As one of the top weather markets in the country, Oklahoma City TV stations' personnel knew well in advance of the strong possibility for severe weather on May 20. Their chief meteorologists had their weather teams well positioned in covering the tornado, likely saving many lives through their stern warnings that afternoon.
In interviews this week, Gary England of KWTV-9, Mike Morgan of KFOR-4 and Damon Lane of KOCO-5 — chief meteorologists of the market's three major TV stations — discussed coverage of the historic tornado.
In more than 40 years at KWTV-9, England has covered more than a thousand tornadoes. However, his forecasting days are numbered. He said next year will be his last storm season before retiring from the station in October 2014 when David Payne, a former KFOR weatherman, takes over as chief meteorologist.
England said he knew the afternoon timing of the May 20 tornado with school in session spelled disaster.
“For many years when I've given talks, I've always said the worst scenario is school is in session and the tornado approaches or develops,” he said. “The mothers and dads hear the warning, see the warning and they jump in their cars and head for the schools. You can't imagine the fear that they had.
“When I looked down from the helicopter shot, I looked down at Santa Fe (Avenue) and it was bumper to bumper and the tornado was one mile west. It was a God-awful feeling. ... It's scary.
“When you're doing it, I'm aware people are going to die. When it first came down as a ribbon, you think we're going to have a typical Oklahoma tornado. In a matter of this short time, it grew into this monster, which it should not have done based on what we saw earlier.”
The swift growth of the tornado set it apart from others he has covered.
“I don't think I've ever seen one develop that quickly,” he said. “I'm sure they have. It just grew, I have to tell you. The conditions Monday morning and even at the time of the tornadoes, it favored tornadoes. … It was there, but it wasn't overpowering. It looks like it went up and this thing became its own weather system very quickly.”
He said its quick development made him reluctant to advise people to flee the area.
“I said get below ground, but I was very careful not to mention to leave for a place of safety because it was on top of them. Traffic was horrendous. … This one, they didn't have a lot of time. Some of them still escaped in their cars, but they were very, very lucky.”
As chief meteorologist, England is the quarterback of the coverage, with information from storm trackers and weather producers being thrown at him as he scans the six screens in front of him.
“It's just a flood of information coming in. For me, I just have to concentrate. The storm trackers, they do a big service. With our MOAR (radar) in front of the station, we can track it street by street. At times, when I'm getting ready to go ahead and pick out streets, I have to shut it off in my mind. I have to mentally click off all the other noise.”
Early in the afternoon Monday, there was not a cloud in the sky and Morgan already was “a basket case.” Several days in advance, he knew severe weather was predicted and he was wearing his trademark sparkly tie — an idea his wife, Marla, gave him to help draw viewers' attention that severe weather was a possibility.
“Just because there's not a cloud doesn't mean I'm relaxed — I'm not,” Morgan said. “I'm a basket case and I'm a basket case for days ahead of time. I don't think I'm ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). I would argue I'm definitely post-traumatic stress. I try to really regulate where I am these days at the age of 49. I've been doing this for a long time and I have been a basket case many, many times in this state because I see these things coming. I can see the future, I can.”
When he spotted a small cloud spinning like a top — an occurrence he had rarely seen — he texted his storm chasers at 1:52 p.m. It said: “Wow. Cloud plume going up spinning 12 north of Chickasha.”
“It goes from that into a rotating shower, then into a rotating storm. Then wind sheer. It strengthens. Then the hook strengthens. By that time in my mind, I'm figuratively almost in a state of panic.”
On a normal Monday afternoon with people getting back to work from lunch and kids at school, the tornado's rapid development had produced what he called a “no-win scenario for Oklahoma weather,” giving residents little time to react.
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