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.
Like England, he said there were problems with advising people to flee. He took issue with a Time magazine cover of the Moore tornado with the headline: “16 minutes. That's how much time you have to save your life.”
“The correct quote to me is ‘16 minutes to grab your life and save it.' ... Whether that's your child, your pet, your pictures, your wedding ring. That's why fleeing is a problem. How can you possibly grab your life in 16 minutes to save it? Can any of us do that? No, we can't.
“Fleeing, if you have time, and you have no place to go below ground, you have to flee to save your life. The problem is you can't grab your life in time to flee. That's why it's difficult to flee. Don't even think. Act! The thought process at that point is going to bog you down. You're trying to rationalize what is incomprehensible. You have to just act.”
Morgan said he knew he had to shake people up to get them to act quickly. As the tornado roared through Moore and south Oklahoma City, he said what was on his mind.
“I said this is three times worse than May 3rd. At one time, I said it was the costliest tornado in the history of the world,” he said, explaining he thinks the final estimates will place it more costly than the Joplin, Mo., tornado in May 2011.
“People came back and said you're getting backlash off that. I didn't say it again because I'm not here to upset people. But I am here to report what I see. If I can't figure it out now, being a fourth-generation Oklahoman and doing this since I was 10, I'll never be able to figure this out. I tend to call things like I see them.”
Morgan said his warnings days in advance were heeded by some viewers.
“I had quite a few emails from grandmothers and parents saying, we elected to keep our kids home today, Monday, because of what you've been talking about. And thank you for reaffirming so tragicly that was the correct decision. Of course, we can't say we do that all the time. If we did that all the time, the kids would be suspended for not going to school.”
As the rookie of the bunch with only seven months' experience as chief meteorologist, Lane has had to learn quickly how to cover tornadoes. Beside its size, the Monday tornado was even more difficult for him to cover because it was headed for his home in Moore.
“As the tornado got closer to Moore, then into Moore, that's when I really started to have this adrenaline rush that this is humongous, this is absolutely humongous,” said Lane, who grew up near Washington, D.C., and attended the University of North Carolina.
He texted his wife, who was driving on I-35 trying to get home, and a couple of his neighbors to “shelter now.” He said his wife was bitten by their dog as she grabbed it and jumped into the shelter, which Lane had put in only four months ago. He listed all the businesses in the line of the storm, including his favorite sushi restaurant and the Warren Theatre.
“My home did suffer some damage, but you go one street north of my home and it looks like a war zone, an absolute war zone.”
Lane said he was well prepared for the day with six of his 12 storm trackers stationed that day in Cleveland County.
“We had enough crews there and we certainly had pictures of the tornadoes coming in,” he said.
Lane said “adrenaline” helped him to get through the coverage of his first major tornado.
“I look back now and it feels like it was all just a blur. It all seemed to come and go so fast. I was watching the tornado go across the streets and I heard from people at the TV station that usually when there are tornadoes going through, there is a lot of commotion going on, everyone is trying to work hard to get a picture up. But what Paul (Folger) and Jess (Schambach), the anchors, said, it was dead silence. It was like you were in your zone, and no one could have done anything to get you out of it.”
Lane said he learned to be calm in handling the pressure of the situation from watching former KOCO chief meteorologist Rick Mitchell, who moved to Dallas station KXAS-TV.
“If you're calm, then the people watching you will stay calm,” he said. “You certainly don't want to be flipping out or freaking out. I learned that very well from Rick.”