Tornado forecasting was invented in Oklahoma, at Tinker Field. This was a necessity, as tornados are part of our way of life and death. And over the years, we got damn good at tornado prediction and coverage. We have the best local television weather divisions in the country, who invest heavily in the latest equipment and newest technologies. By the 1990's they could predict what minute a cell would reach a specific intersection. All the divisions have helicopters who follow the storms, so you can watch live on television and know whether you are in the direct path or not. We Oklahoma citizens become amateur meteorologists ourselves. We know meteorological terms. We can read radar images, even before they are interpreted by the weatherman. We are drilled in disaster procedures from earliest childhood. Oklahoma is so good at it, that I've always been afraid only when I'm someplace else and a storm comes, because I do not trust that the local news in other states knows what to do or possesses the technology required.
And, so, on May 3, 1999 when nature hit us the hardest it ever had, it tested all our systems and preparedness. The storm that ripped through Moore, Mid-Del, and Stroud was the worst ever recorded, with winds over 300 miles an hour. Scientists debated whether they should create the category of F6, which does not exist, in order to describe it. The weather system that night spawned 72 tornados, the most ever spawned from one storm. Almost every citizen of the state had to take shelter at some point in the night. You wondered if you should stay awake until it all passed.
And the next day, as devastated as everything was, we were proud that the death toll, for such a mighty storm, was surprisingly low. "Gary England saved lives" you would hear, referring to the legendary channel 9 weatherman. Our systems had worked as well as could be expected.
Which is why May 20, 2013 will be so devastating psychologically. By every measure, this monster was not as strong as May 3. Yet, the destruction in Moore seems worse and the death toll is so much higher. We thought that in the 21st century we had done our best to conquer this catastrophe. Nature reminds us that we have not.
My only guess is that the time of day is the major factor. May 3 hit in the early evening, during the dinner hour, with storms raging well into the night. So most people were home from work and school and off the roads. This storm hit while people were still out and about and gathered in workplaces and schools.
We have a cavalier attitude towards tornados. It shocks people from other places. I'm not sure I can explain it, but I will try.
Catastrophe is part of our story and identity. We are aware from childhood that death and destruction come unexpectedly and hit randomly. You survive, really, because you've been lucky enough not to be in the direct path of a mighty storm. Rather than cower in fear or anxiety, the storm has elicited a defiant spirit -- courage in the face of death and resilience and generosity when--not if--destruction comes.
That is why we go outside and watch the storm if we are not directly in its path.
I was struck today by something I heard one of the children say on CBS This Morning. Norah O'Donnell was asking him about his experience and he said, by introductory way of explanation, "This was my first tornado." He said it matter-of-factly. And there is great meaning in it. Even this child had lived with the expectation of some day encountering the storm. Lives still with the understanding that this is his first tornado.
But I think something will be different this time, because our systems didn't work as they have, and this monster killed too many of us. Maybe Oklahoma will finally pass building codes that acknowledge reality. You cannot build in California without taking earthquakes into account or in Florida without preparing for hurricanes. Oklahoma has never required tornado safe and resilient buildings. Oddly, many of our oldest structures are the safest. The oldest homes usually have cellars. After May 3, it was shocking that we didn't pass new laws. We cannot repeat that mistake after May 20.
This morning I heard an old woman on CBS say "The sound was like a turning of the world."