By Rick Wilking
My wife and I were just about to open some little gifts celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary on May 20th when my cellphone rang.
I said “that’s going to be the Oklahoma call” without even seeing it was Bob Strong, North America Editor in Charge, on the other end. The presents went on hold and the packing began.
The next day I was back in Moore, Oklahoma, waiting for the weather to clear enough to fly in a Cessna 172 over the path of the storm. I say “back in Moore” because I covered the massive tornado that hit the same place in 1999 and again in 2003. The locals call the 1999 version “the May 3rd storm.” That F-5 storm killed 44 people and destroyed more than 300 homes.
Despite that devastation in 1999 it would be much worse this time. Much of the area covered by the ’99 storm was just open fields. Seeing grassy fields turned into mud with the grass torn out by the roots was eye-opening back then but this time the grassy fields were covered by new housing developments and the schools, stores and hospitals that go with it. The 2013 storm, also an F-5, killed 24, injured 377 people and destroyed 1,200 homes – four times the number of houses damaged in 1999.
With this tornado, Moore suffered its fifth massive storm in 15 years. The paths of the ’99 and ’13 storms were near-identical, even overlapping in some places. So, what is it about this place that makes it such a target? Geography. The low-pressure systems that flow down from the Rocky Mountains where I live collide with warm moist air from the gulf that form thunderstorms – huge thunderstorms, that often spawn tornadoes, lots of tornadoes, right over central Oklahoma. They don’t call it “tornado alley” for nothing.