A Night of Tornado Chaos in Oklahoma City: 9 Killed, 71 Injured

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 7:21 PM GMT on June 01, 2013

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It was a terrifying evening of tornado chaos and extreme atmospheric violence in the Oklahoma City area on Friday. Three tornadoes touched down near the city, killing nine, injuring at least 71, and causing widespread destruction. Huge hail up to baseball-sized battered portions the the metro area, accompanied by torrential flooding rains, widespread damaging straight-line winds, and lightning that flashed nearly continuously. The strongest tornado, which touched down west of Oklahoma City in El Reno, has been preliminarily rated an EF-3 with 136 - 165 mph winds. The tornado warning for the storm was issued 19 minutes before it touched down. Two other EF-3 tornadoes touched down near St. Louis, Missouri, and NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) logged 20 preliminary tornado reports on Friday. Tinker Air Force Base on the east side of Oklahoma City reported sustained winds of 68 mph, gusting to 88 mph, at 8:09 pm CDT. The Oklahoma City airport had sustained winds of 53 mph, gusting to 71 mph at 7:26 pm. These winds were generated by the massive and powerful downdrafts from the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the El Reno tornado. Thankfully, Friday was likely the peak day for this week's severe weather outbreak, as SPC is calling for only a "Slight Risk" of severe weather Saturday and Sunday.


Figure 1. TWC's Mike ‪Bettes‬ crew caught this image of the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado of May 31, 2013 before the tornado caught them and rolled their vehicle.



Figure 2 and 3. Radar reflectivity (top) and Doppler velocity (bottom) images of the May 31, 2013 El Reno, Oklahoma tornado.


Figure 4. Preliminary tracks of the three tornadoes that touched done near Oklahoma City on May 31, 2013. Image credit: NWS Norman, OK.

Tornadoes and cars: a dangerous mix
A vehicle is about the worst place you can be in a tornado, as the tornado's winds can easily roll a car. (The only place less safe is probably a mobile home, as a tornado's winds can roll mobile homes almost as readily, and mobile homes don't come with seat belts and air bags.) At least five of the deaths in Friday's El Reno tornado occurred in vehicles attempting to flee. There was one local TV station that urged residents without underground shelters to get in their cars and "get south" in advance of the tornado that was approaching Oklahoma City, since chasers were reporting that the El Reno tornado may have been so strong that only an underground shelter would have provided adequate protection. This terrible piece of advice likely contributed to the incredible traffic jams that we saw on I-35, I-40, I-44, and other local roads Friday night. Thousands of cars were bumper-to-bumper on the roads as a dangerous tornado approached them. Had the El Reno tornado plowed directly down one of these car-choked interstates, the death toll could have easily exceeded 500. If you are located in a metro area and don't have an underground shelter, the best thing to do it to take shelter in an interior windowless room or hallway, with protective furniture over your body. Getting in a car and attempting to flee the tornado is the worst thing you can do in an urban area. You may not be able to see the tornado if it is dark or the tornado is wrapped in rain. You are likely to encounter hazardous winds, rain, and hail, run into unexpected traffic, or flooded or debris-blocked roads that will put you directly in the path of the tornado. Even without an underground shelter, most people will be able to survive a dangerous EF-4 tornado. Case in point: during the Mannford, Oklahoma EF-4 tornado of 1984, a packed church received a direct hit, and everyone in the church survived. The only fatality was a man who drove to the church to get his wife. (Thanks to wunderground member AGWcreationists for this link.) It's better to abandon your vehicle and take shelter in a ditch, if you are caught in a car during a tornado.


Video 1. The Weather Channel storm chasers weren't the only ones who got themselves in an extremely dangerous situation on May 31. StormChasingVideo.com storm chaser Brandon Sullivan and his chase partner Brett Wright got caught in the tornado northwest of Union City, OK and slammed with debris as the tornado hit a barn that exploded in front of them.


Video 2. When the hunters became the hunted: Weather Channel storm chasers ‪Mike Bettes and two photographers were in their Tornado Hunt vehicle when they were hit by a tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31,‬ ‪2013. ‬The tornado picked their car up off the ground and rolled it 6 - 8 times before depositing it in a field 200 yards away. All the occupants were wearing seat belts and the air bags deployed, likely saving their lives. Bettes sustained minor injuries, including stitches in his hand. It was the first injury sustained by a Weather Channel personality covering violent weather, according to company spokesperson Shirley Powell.

A storm chasers' nightmare
Cars and tornadoes can prove a dangerous mix even for the world's most experienced storm chasers. Driving at high speeds though heavy rain, large hail, and high winds is hazardous. If one is lucky enough to chase down a tornado, even the most experienced chasers can find themselves in a serious life-threatening situation when unpredictable events occur. Tornadoes by their nature are unpredictable, and can change course unexpectedly, or pop up suddenly. It's particularly dangerous when a tornado is wrapped in rain, making it hard to see, or if a chaser is operating in a heavily populated area, where roads may suddenly become congested. All four of these conditions occurred Friday during the El Reno tornado, and it is very fortunate that multiple chasers were not killed. The El Reno tornado was wrapped in rain and difficult to see as it headed west towards Oklahoma City. The twister suddenly made a jog to the southeast as a Weather Channel team led by Mike Bettes was attempting to get in front of the storm, and the tornado lifted their vehicle off the ground, rolled it multiple times, and hurled it 200 yards into a nearby field. StormChasingVideo.com storm chaser Brandon Sullivan and his chase partner Brett Wright got caught in the tornado northwest of Union City, OK and slammed with debris as the tornado hit a barn that exploded in front of them. Meteorologist Emily Sutton and storm chaser Kevin Josefy of local Oklahoma City TV station KFOR also had a very close call with the El Reno tornado Friday afternoon. They got too close to the tornado, and were forced to floor the car in reverse to escape flying debris. With branches of trees crashing around them, Sutton began feeling debris hitting her back, and realized that the rear windshield of the car must have gotten destroyed. Both were uninjured. Reed Timmer's armor-plated "Dominator" chase vehicle had its hood torn off by the tornado. Wunderground member Levi32 was out storm chasing during the El Reno Tornado, and got stuck in traffic on Highway 4 and couldn't move. "We looked up above the car and saw the wall cloud over top of us, with very quick rotation and rising scud indicating the updraft. We were definitely too close. We made it home safely last night, but not until after an insanely wild day. One hour of chasing turned into six more of being chased by at least 2 tornadoes and a 3rd wall cloud, one of which was the one that went right through downtown Oklahoma City. At one point we were stuck in traffic underneath the El Rino wall cloud watching rotating, rising scud directly above the car. I am hoping and praying that the daylight does not reveal more fatalities.

Would I go again? Yes, but not today, or tomorrow, and I would take even greater care. We had no clue we would get caught the way we did. I thought we had done everything right. We were kind of freaking out for a while. That velocity signature you guys saw with radar folding and multiple vortices - we were under the southern edge of it. We never got a clear view of the tornado, but we could tell just how close it was to our north. It was unreal. The inflow got pretty strong.

We were almost ready to jump out and take cover right before we found a route south, which ended up being slow. It became a six-lane highway south as everyone panicked and drove on the wrong side of the road. Even we did so. We thought we were clear until we saw the training of tornadic supercells on radar, all connected somehow. I've never seen anything like that. My best pictures of the day were of the wall cloud that followed behind the El Reno storm. We didn't see a funnel from that one either, but it chased us south for a long time, and we heard from radio that it spawned a confirmed tornado in Tuttle, when we realized that we were in Tuttle.

A third mesocyclone showed up behind that one as we continued slowly south, eventually reaching Blanchard. It looked weaker than the others but we weren't going to escape it, so we took shelter in a storm room in the local grocery store for about an hour. It then took a long time to find a way around the huge hail cores to get back home. Lightning flashes were occurring 10 times per second as we drove home in the dark. It was almost calming to watch as we got over the semi-shock that we were all in. None of us in the car had seen a tornado before. We didn't see one yesterday, but we were chased by two."



Video 3. Birth of the El Reno wedge tornado. As the tornado touched down, it produced a rare display of suction vortices.

Video 4. Storm chasers Jeff Piotrowski and Kathryn Piotrowski captured impressive footage of a double vortex tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013.

Severe storms causing major flooding
The 5.64" of rain that fell at the Oklahoma City Will Rogers Airport on Friday was their 6th wettest day in city history, and brought the total rainfall for the month of May to 14.52", the wettest May in Oklahoma City's history (Thanks to BaltimoreBrian for this link.) The North Canadian River in Oklahoma City rose sixteen feet in twelve hours, cresting at its 2nd highest flood on record this Saturday morning. The heavy rains have spread eastwards on Saturday, causing more flooding problems. Paducah, KY had its wettest June day and 3rd wettest day on record on June 1, with 5.73" of rain (all-time record: 7.49" on 9/5/1985.) Major flooding is occurring along a substantial stretch of the Mississippi River in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.


Figure 5. The North Canadian River in Oklahoma City rose sixteen feet in twelve hours, reaching its 2nd highest flood on record this Saturday morning.


Figure 6. Radar-estimated rainfall in the Oklahoma City area reached 8+" over some areas from Friday's storm.

Remains of Hurricane Barbara may bring heavy rains to Mexico, Florida, and Cuba
Today, June 1, is the official first day of the Atlantic Hurricane season, and we already have our first Atlantic tropical disturbance to talk about. Hurricane Barbara, which died on Thursday as it attempted to cross Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec into the southernmost Gulf of Mexico, has left behind an area of disturbed weather over the southernmost Gulf of Mexico. There is very little heavy thunderstorm activity associated with Barbara's remnants apparent on satellite loops this Saturday afternoon. Wind shear is a high 20 knots in the region, and the area of disturbed weather is quite small, so I don't expect any development to occur over the next few days. NHC is giving the disturbance a 10% chance of developing into a tropical cyclone by Monday. Moisture from the remnants of Barbara may combine with moisture from an area of heavy thunderstorms expected to build over the Western Caribbean this weekend, and begin bringing heavy rains to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Western Cuba on Sunday and Monday. These heavy rains may spread to Southwest Florida as early as Monday night. The computer models predict that this disturbance should be large and poorly organized, making development into a Gulf of Mexico tropical cyclone unlikely.

My next post will be Monday at the latest.

Jeff Masters

LotsOfWater... (CalicoBass)
from the heavy rains overnight, flowing over this low water bridge. We were waiting to see if something about our size drove over it okay (we were in a Toyota Pickup), this is a bit bigger than us, lol.
LotsOfWater...
Sunset Strike (mrwing13)
NE Oklahoma is under the gun, again today. Severe weather, threatens to produce more damaging storms.
Sunset Strike
tornado (modernsourdough)
near bennington, ks
tornado

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Dr. Masters mentioned me in his entry. Pretty cool! Glad he liked the link.
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Quoting MrMixon:
The Dominator 2 with a slight modification from last night's storms (going hoodless in weather like that can't be good for the engine...)



Wonder what their insurance policy clauses are!
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The Dominator 2 with a slight modification from last night's storms (going hoodless in weather like that can't be good for the engine...)

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if only we knew the patterns that will set up during cape verde season watching the mdr there seems to be quite a bit showers
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From what I'm reading on this great weather blog,and looking at some of the Models,it seems to be that Florida will be the setup for a major!! weather event probably starting tomorrow night.
We are located in Miami South Florida.Can we truly expect 20"+ of rain and stormy weather in our area?,already looking at the Caribbean & Gulf of Mexico Rainbow Loops we can see a lot!! of rain in moisture,that we don't believe is related in our humble opinion to the system that the Models are showing,if all the rain move up North in our direction I believe the bad weather will start in South Florida and up much sooner than the middle of next week.
Any thoughts or comments on this??.
Member Since: August 28, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 591
hurricane season is a bust this year


this kinding



i had too say it
Member Since: May 21, 2006 Posts: 5089 Comments: 114025
Quoting JNTenne:
Storm Chasers need to be relegated to the non-urban areas. Of course we could always take away their SUV's and equip them with.....


Stormchasers generally avoid cities.
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Quoting BaltimoreBrian:


You can't have twitter without twits!



I'm just already on facebook and have been since I was 16, I don't want to get into yet another social media outlet too.
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Like I said couple of posts back, I'm working on tropical blog right now. Going to take me awhile making graphics and typing it since I got somewhat knowledge of tropical weather.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
It was Friday afternoon rush hour when the storms rolled into the OKC metro, population 1.2 million. I'm not surprised there were traffic jams. Even in a highly tornado-aware place like Oklahoma City most people there are not as knowledgeable about weather safety as we are. Panic may also have been a factor for some.
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Quoting BaltimoreBrian:
When I saw the dewpoints in the mid 70s at Oklahoma City I wondered if there would be flooding. However I did not expect excessive rainfall to be so widespread.


Training strong thunderstorms for hours was why. When you have cold air aloft and surface CAPE 4000 to 7000 and than an upper disturbance, yeah... PWAT was 1.5 to 1.75 which plenty high enough given such strong instability and cold air aloft.
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Quoting Jedkins01:


That's why I don't do twitter, its a place that encourages stupidity and childishness to come out of people. It encourages people to speak before they think, rather thank think before they speak.


There is alot of absolute idiocy and childness on this blog. It doesnt mean there arent alot of great people making great and informed opinions. There are. With Twitter and FB you can quickly assess who are the un-informed and who are quality and thus, where you want to put your energies for great information.

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Quoting Jedkins01:


That's true as well, I just have chosen not to get involved with twitter.


You can't have twitter without twits!
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Quoting CybrTeddy:
Welcome to the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season everyone, and the first post of the season!

2013 Atlantic hurricane season names:
Andrea (an-dree-uh)
Barry (bair-ree)
Chantal (shahn-tahl)
Dorian (dpr-ee-an)
Erin (air-rin)
Fernand (fair-nahn)
Gabrielle (gab-bree-ell)
Humberto (oom-bair-toh)
Ingrid (in-grid)
Jerry (jehr-ee)
Karen (kair-ren)
Lorenzo (loh-ren-zoh)
Melissa (meh-lith-suh)
Nestor (nes-tor)
Olga (oal-guh)
Pablo (pahb-lo)
Rebekah (reh-beh-kuh)
Sebastien (suh-bash-chuhn)
Tanya (tahn-yuh)
Van (van)
Wendy (wen-dee)

These names are the same last seen 6 years ago in the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season with the exception of 3: Dean (replaced with Dorian) a Category 5 hurricane, Felix (replaced with Fernand) another Category 5 hurricane, and Noel (replaced by Nestor), a Category 1 hurricane. The 2007 Atlantic hurricane season caused $3 billion dollars in damage and killed 394 people, mostly in the Caribbean. This list has been particularly nasty, other recent seasons that have used this list are 2001 (Allison, Iris, and Michelle), 1995 (Luis, Marilyn, Opal, and Roxanne), 1989 (Hugo), and 1983 (Alicia), all of which have featured at least one very nasty hurricane either in the Caribbean or towards America. Let's hope this season doesn't continue the curse.


Thanks for refreshing my memory I though those names were familar.
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When I saw the dewpoints in the mid 70s at Oklahoma City I wondered if there would be flooding. However I did not expect excessive rainfall to be so widespread.
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Quoting Jedkins01:


That's true as well, I just have chosen not to get involved with twitter.
Your choice :)
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
I see stories about the 9 deaths from the tornadoes but I am not seeing mention of flooding fatalities.
Were all 9 deaths from the tornadoes?
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Quoting Hurricanes101:


If not for the stormchasers, we may have had way more than 9 people die last night. They do give us a great service by covering these storms; which gives us more information about them. They aren't doing it as a hobby and because they are adrenaline junkies; they do it because it is what they love and they are trained to do it well. Even the most trained get caught at times however, but those who have no knowledge of the subject chose to lash out at them.

They are like the Hurricane Hunters of the land I say, those guys and girls risk their lives too. It is a dangerous job though, but they choose to do it.
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Quoting JNTenne:
Storm Chasers need to be relegated to the non-urban areas. Of course we could always take away their SUV's and equip them with.....
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Quoting anotherwrongyear:
well we have been boarded up here in florida for the past 9 years and still waiting every year they say is very active ... i guess if your a fish in the atlantic its been busy


Lol stay boarded up the most devastating storms are the ones you least expected.
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I want to be a stormchaser one day, and I am aware I will get this lash from ignorant people... I guess it is going to be one of the hardest parts of being a stormchaser, huh?
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Quoting Bluestorm5:
There's also experts giving out information (note, I said experts, not people spreading misinformation). NWS Norman did a hell of job on Twitter and Facebook.


That's true as well, I just have chosen not to get involved with twitter.
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.
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Link



Southeastern Palm Beach County is under a flash flood watch until 6 p.m.
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90L remaining disorganized as its interacting with the monsoonal energy. It will take awhile before anything can consolidate for development. Regardless, The combination of the two will most likely create a huge area of shear moisture that will rise from the Yucatan and head NE with Florida and the SE looking at a lot of rain starting Monday thru the entire week. Some models even suggest up to 20''. However some of that could just be some convective feedback.
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Quoting CybrTeddy:


Same with Facebook comments. Social media is the home ground for incredible ignorance.


It really is...
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Quoting Jedkins01:


That's why I don't do twitter, its a place that encourages stupidity and childishness to come out of people. It encourages people to speak before they think, rather thank think before they speak.
There's also experts giving out information (note, I said experts, not people spreading misinformation). NWS Norman did a hell of job on Twitter and Facebook.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
Who was the weather genius that told folks to leave quasi safety and to get into their cars and leave? Watching all of that unfold yesterday, I cringed at the thought of a twister plowing through those jam-packed, stalled interstate car lots.
Member Since: July 9, 2006 Posts: 184 Comments: 29594
Should allow SST's to rise above normal again.
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Really, thank you for defending storm chasers. I'm not that good at making arguments because I've been speaking English for few years and I'm not that thoughtful. However, I think if there weren't for storm chasers, there would've been more than 9 dead last night. Yes, there were too many of them yesterday. Yes, they made mistake chasing after that monster tornado with crazy velocity readings. Yes, some of them do it for the thrill. Yes, some of them do it for extreme videos. Yes, they clogged up the road yesterday. But there are storm chasers that do it to collect data, call in reports, and many, many, many more.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
Quoting Jedkins01:


That's why I don't do twitter, its a place that encourages stupidity and childishness to come out of people. It encourages people to speak before they think, rather thank think before they speak.


Same with Facebook comments. Social media is the home ground for incredible ignorance.
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..."what could possibly go wrong, we're experienced"..

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Quoting CybrTeddy:


Because Twitter is a great source for logical and well thought out posts.

Keep this in mind, if it wasn't for professional storm spotters calling in the development we may have yesterday only have had radar to get an idea of the seriousness of the situation. Ground observations are absolutely essential in situations like this. Might as well tell hurricane hunters they're not allowed to fly through hurricanes because it's too dangerous.


That's why I don't do twitter, its a place that encourages stupidity and childishness to come out of people. It encourages people to speak before they think, rather thank think before they speak.
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Quoting Bluestorm5:
Believe me, people are saying things about storm chasers on Twitter and on last blog.


If not for the stormchasers, we may have had way more than 9 people die last night. They do give us a great service by covering these storms; which gives us more information about them. They aren't doing it as a hobby and because they are adrenaline junkies; they do it because it is what they love and they are trained to do it well. Even the most trained get caught at times however, but those who have no knowledge of the subject chose to lash out at them.
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..er,,maybe some Helmet's in the next Budget,eh Guy's?

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Quoting yonzabam:


Why? Stormchasers know the risks. There's always the possibility of death, as there is in mountaineering, basejumping, or even powerboat racing. People don't hate mountaineers for taking risks, so why should they hate stormchasers?

Also, the video record has scientific value, and helps to improve our knowledge of tornadoes.

Anytime a person receives profit or enjoyment from disaster they have a bad reputation in most communities. I am a different kind of "storm chaser" I work in debris clean up. While I am sure those doing it for science are looked at differently. Those who are seeking the thrill and profit will be looked at like in the same way some in hard hit communities have looked at me.

I have found it is both safer and less of a burden on the communities to wait at least a week to do my "storm chasing". In larger cities there does need to be different policy's in place both for the people "chasing" and running from the storm. As Dr. Masters said the death toll would have been tremendous if the tornado had hit the gridlocked roadways.
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Quoting Bluestorm5:
Believe me, people are saying things about storm chasers on Twitter and on last blog.


Because Twitter is a great source for logical and well thought out posts.

Keep this in mind, if it wasn't for professional storm spotters calling in the development we may have yesterday only have had radar to get an idea of the seriousness of the situation. Ground observations are absolutely essential in situations like this. Might as well tell hurricane hunters they're not allowed to fly through hurricanes because it's too dangerous.
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Here is my predictions for the upcoming season.

17 Named Storms - I think there will be less storms this year than last year (19 storms) because there was a lot of systems that spun up north of the MDR only to have a short lived life. The focal point this year will be more storms in the MDR and less storms forming way out to sea.

10 Hurricanes - This year will feature double digit canes as The pattern is setting up for more instability in the tropics as well as less than normal trade winds that prevent storms that was entering the Caribbean from strengthening last year such as Ernesto.

5 Major Hurricanes - A trend I notice with storms last year was that they peak at Minimal Hurricane status (Cat 1 & 2) and conditions favor strengthening low wind shear to become a major, however the upper atmosphere was too dry and pressures was high in the MDR. However, this year will feature a pattern similar to 2008 and 2005 were there was more instability and lift to lower pressure and fire up thunderstorms.

80% chance of an above normal season, 60% chance of a very active season.

75% of a storm making landfall in the US
50% of a huricane or higher making US landfall

Those are my predictions. Bottomline an active season ahead prepare and keep safe!

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Quoting Bluestorm5:
Oh many things I can't say on this blog.


Just tone it down a bit.
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Quoting VR46L:
Thanks Doc!

Day one of the season..wonder what it will bring ?

Whatnot and Stuff in Abundance !
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Quoting FunnelVortex:


What are they saying?
Oh many things I can't say on this blog.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
Quoting JNTenne:
Storm Chasers need to be relegated to the non-urban areas. Of course we could always take away their SUV's and equip them with.....

http://icons-ak.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/ j/JNTenne/5.jpg


A 404 Not Found error would probably be the worst thing to be faced with during a tornado.

EDIT -- nvm, the link fixed itself.
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Working on my first tropical blog of season... let's hope my gathering of knowledge the last few years on here pays off. One thing I'm good at is making graphics so expect tons of them on my first blog! My forecast graphics from last year is going to be same.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 23 Comments: 7443
Quoting Bluestorm5:
Believe me, people are saying things about storm chasers on Twitter and on last blog.


What are they saying?
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Storm Chasers need to be relegated to the non-urban areas. Of course we could always take away their SUV's and equip them with.....
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Thanks Dr. Masters. GREAT blog and some amazing footage..just goes to show that one has to expect the unexpected when dealing with tornadic activity. Even the experts can get caught off guard. Fortunately none of these chasers were critically injured.
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Quoting FunnelVortex:


I think people hate stormchasers because of their driving habits.


Ah well, if there's hundreds of 'em out there, clogging up the roads, that's another matter. I can understand that.
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About JeffMasters

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.