By John Lawrence
Two EF5 tornadoes hit the Oklahoma City area in May. The first tornado hit Moore, OK and had winds estimated at over 200 mph reaching a maximum damage width of 1.3 miles. State officials confirmed 24 fatalities due to the twister. The storm injured over 300 others with preliminary damage estimates totaling over $2 billion along its 17 mile, 40 minute path. The twister destroyed two Moore elementary schools, killing seven schoolchildren at Plaza Towers elementary and injuring many others. Moore was hit in 1999 by another EF5, which had the strongest winds ever measured on earth: 302 mph.
One day previous to that event, a violent twister traveled from east Norman to near McLoud causing two fatalities. That tornado was rated as an EF4. While numbers are still preliminary, the National Weather Service counted at least 19 tornadoes between the two days. Officials from the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management estimated that the two-day barrage impacted 2937 homes, businesses and non-residential buildings.
The second EF5 called the El Reno tornado occurred on May 31 and had the widest width on record – 2.6 miles. It had winds of 295 miles per hour just shy of the strongest winds ever measured. The 20 fatalities from the El Reno tornado plus the 24 deaths from the Moore tornado bring the total to 44 for the month of May making 2013 the deadliest tornado year since 1950, beating 1999’s 42 fatalities. The El Reno tornado didn’t hit populated areas, a fact that almost certainly saved lives. Winds were at their most powerful in areas devoid of structures. Mike Smith, Senior Vice President of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and a tornado expert described the El Reno, OK tornado as a “super tornado.”
“A super tornado, as I have defined it, is F5 and 2 miles or wider,” Smith said. “Less than one tornado in 50,000 would be categorized as a super tornado. Put one of these [super tornadoes] into a major city such as Dallas, Wichita and Kansas City, and it would be a major disaster.” There would be the potential for thousands of casualties. Smith stated that a super tornado could cost tens of billions of dollars if it hit a major city.
It’s expert Rick Smith’s belief that storms like this occur, on average, about once every decade. That may be a low estimate since we’ve now had three 2 mile wide tornadoes in just 6 years.
Oklahoma’s school superintendent says as many as 56 public school sites were damaged by violent storms and floods that ripped through the state last month. Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said Friday that three sites in Moore and the El Reno campus of the Canadian Valley Technology Center were destroyed. All seven sites in El Reno Public Schools reported damage from wind, water and large hail. Lincoln, Hillcrest and Rose Witcher elementary schools are temporarily closed because their roofs have been declared total losses from softball-size hail. It will cost millions to repair these schools.
There was more extreme weather besides the tornadoes. On May 30th severe thunderstorms developed over central and eastern Oklahoma, as well as in northwest Arkansas, producing very strong winds and large hail. Several short-lived tornadoes developed, affecting areas near Oilton, Mazie, Murphy, and Broken Arrow. Major flooding became an issue as the thunderstorms tracked over the same areas, dropping several inches of rainfall. Southern Le Flore County received 3 inches to over 6 inches of rain on the 30th and the 31st, with a majority of that rain falling in the 6-hour period from 9 PM on May 30th to 3 AM on May 31st. This rain led to extreme flash flooding with reports of 4 to 5 feet of water in homes, several bridges washed out, and numerous roads and culverts with damage.
Included in the 20 fatalities due to the El Reno tornado were three professional storm chasers from the Discovery Channel. There were also 115 injuries. The 11-day span between the El Reno storm and the May 20 tornado that devastated a large portion of Moore “is the shortest time span between EF5 tornadoes in Oklahoma history,” the National Weather Service said. EF5 tornadoes are a very rare occurrence in US History. Before the two EF5’s in Oklahoma in May, there had only been 60 in the United States since 1950, when reliable records began. That means the Oklahoma City area has seen two of the extremely rare EF5 tornadoes in less than a month.
“From an insurance industry perspective, losses were already in the hundreds of millions even prior to the May 31 tornado and flooding in Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and elsewhere in the Plains and Midwest,” storm expert Aon Benfield said. “It would not be a surprise if the recent stretch of severe weather ends up becoming the second billion-dollar insured event in the US in the last two weeks.”
Farmers Insurance spokesman Mark Toohey says that the company received a total of 1,714 claims from the May 31 storm, with 75 percent of claims concentrated in property and 25 percent of claims filed for auto. State Farm spokesman Jim Camoriano reported 3,600 homeowner’s and 6,100 auto claims as of June 1 for the storms that occurred May 19-21.
As of June 5, The Oklahoma Insurance Department says that claims filed by state residents have climbed to 32,433 since May 19. The filings represent insured losses of nearly $250 million, including 13,938 homeowners and 724 commercial property claims.
Flash flooding brought about 11 inches of rain, complicating rescue and recovery efforts and causing dangerous conditions for motorists and those stuck in buildings like a courthouse where up to five feet of water had pooled. More than 86,000 customers in the state were left without power as the weekend of June 1 began.
In Missouri, tornadoes and straight-line winds of more than 60 mph leveled homes around St. Charles and St. Louis. Homes were leveled, and a casino, a hotel, a health center, four schools, and the St. Louis Lambert airport sustained damage. About 200 roads were closed due to flash flooding in the state, and 89,000 customers lost power.
Damage and dangerous weather also touched down in the form of high winds, rain and golfball-sized hail in Kansas, Arkansas, Illinois and Indiana.
Hardly any of the mainstream media reports mentioned that the cause of these increasingly common billion dollar extreme weather events is global warming. It’s as if our house is burning down and we are busy adding fuel to the fire by pumping 88 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere day in and day out.