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OUTRUNNING THE MAY 31 OKLAHOMA TORNADO IN A CAR: THINK TWICE

Bryan Farha Published: June 2, 2013

 

 

 

 

By Bryan Farha

 

 

 

Oklahomans were already reeling from the May 20, 2013 tornados, when several more struck on May 31. Here we go again. At about 6:15pm (central time), our local television meteorologists alerted us that a massive, mile wide monster twister was traveling east, and was projected to arrive in my neighborhood at 6:50pm. My house was dead center of the predicted path, so even if it turned slightly, I was at major risk. At least two meteorologists stated that we had a choice: get in a safe room, below ground, or head south if we could beat the projected arrival time. I knew I could beat that time if I left immediately. I decided to take the chance by getting in my car and heading south on Interstate 35 toward Norman. Several variables, however, turned this plausible decision into a very dangerous experience.

Far more people opted for the automobile choice than the meteorologists could have ever expected. Cars were pouring onto I-35 by the thousands, backing up traffic at every on-ramp. I don’t know exactly how slow traffic was, but I know we were either stopped or traveling less than 5 miles per hour a significant part of the way. It was as frustrating as it could get. Making the situation worse was the slowed traffic that already existed due to the monster twister that hit Moore, Oklahoma just eleven days prior. Moore is about 2/3 the way between Oklahoma City and Norman. So it was a double-whammy. It was now questionable if traffic could get far enough south in time.

The double-whammy quickly turned into a triple-whammy when one of the storms unexpectedly decided to take a southern turn toward Moore. It was headed in our direction with traffic moving very slowly. I improved my own situation by weaving in and out of traffic, changing lanes at every opportunity. The nasty part of the storm was behind us, so we were beating it—at least I was. When I finally made it past Moore, traffic moved better toward Norman. Combining my own judgment with the meteorologist’s advice on the radio, I decided to head west on Highway 9 just after arriving at Norman. The only sunshine I could see was to the west, so it appeared to be a decent decision. Instinct had me abandon Highway 9 for on a northwesterly track to Newcastle, Oklahoma. Eventually, however, another ominous looking storm was straight ahead traveling east, so most everyone stopped their cars and waited for the storm to pass before continuing travel. Many got out of their cars, including me, and brainstormed stategies for getting to safety. My sister called me and told me I might be headed right into a tornado. She was correct and we were wise to wait it out. But when that storm passed, it still looked extremely risky to head north toward home. Most all people did so. But the only sunshine in the entire sky—from my vantage point—was southwest. Although that’s the opposite direction from my home, instinct told me to drive toward the sunshine—so I did. Like a nightmare—and like my sister warned—more storms can pop up anywhere or change direction at any time. I quickly found more ominous clouds following me. This time, thankfully, I found Interstate 44—with no backed up traffic—so I drove extremely fast at times and was having success trying to outrun the thing. I don’t believe that overhead storm developed any twisters—and they didn’t mention it on the radio—but I wasn’t taking any chances. Twenty-eight miles later, I barely beat that storm and found myself in Chickasha, Oklahoma. But it was still coming. I saw a motel and had to make a quick decision to take the exit and check in or to continue. If I continued at the speeds I was traveling, I was certain I could beat it. There was sunshine in no other direction and I didn’t want to get off this major highway unless instructed.  So I continued southwest on I-44 for 47 more miles and wound up in Lawton, Oklahoma with clear skies as the sun was setting. I was completely safe for the first time. Going back home after waiting a bit was an option, but I was exhausted and the storms dumped massive amounts of water in Oklahoma City, so flooding was the next immediate concern. I decided to check in to a Lawton hotel and I drove back home the next morning.

Many unfairly fault our meteorologists for giving the advice to travel south. They gave the right advice at the moment they made it. They didn’t know one storm was going to take a southerly turn and they didn’t realize the raw numbers that would flood the streets. Further, road construction at many junctures reduced the number of lanes, stifling traffic, and could have resulted in hundreds of deaths. I will think twice, however, before ever attempting this option again. Glad I had a full tank of gas and new tires. Time to get a below ground tornado shelter since I’m here for the long haul.

[Dr. Bryan Farha is Director of Applied Behavioral Studies & Counseling Graduate Programs at Oklahoma City University]

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