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CSI Tornado: Decoding – and chasing – supercells with the experts

CSI Tornado: Chasing supercells, interviewing a homeowner sucked off his front porch in an Oklahoma tornado outbreak, and examining the path of a destructive funnel, an expert expedition shows how science is close to decoding the way a tornado works.

By Staff writer / May 13, 2012

CSI Tornado: Decoding – and chasing – supercells with the experts. This is the weekly cover story of the May 14 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Parrish Velasco/The Dallas Morning News/AP

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Woodward, Okla.

Forecasters had seen it coming for days – an angry blob of bright pink blossoming on forecast maps over a nearly 175,000-square-mile area of the Great Plains. For only the second time in its history, the National Weather Service held a pre-outbreak press conference Friday, April 13, alerting the region – much as it does for hurricanes ahead of landfall – to brace itself. Conditions were ripe for a significant tornado outbreak.

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Indeed, 150 reports of twisters across four states – including a powerful funnel a mile wide that hit Wichita, Kan. – reached federal forecast offices.

By nightfall Saturday, the last in a parade of roiling supercells, the thunderstorms that spawn twisters, had marched northeast, and some TV meteorologists in Oklahoma City were saying the worst was over. So residents of this cattle, wheat, and oil town along the path the storms had taken northwest of Oklahoma City went to bed relieved. All that was left was the squall line that TV forecasters said would bring strong storms – but nothing like that day's supercells.

By midnight, grandchildren were asleep in the Lord home here, and the adults were getting ready to follow. Chad Lord, a storm-savvy contractor up from Florida to visit his parents, made one last check for tornado warnings. Nothing on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio. Nothing on TV.

As Chad was about to turn in, warning sirens began to wail. The squall line had broken into supercells; a tornado was bearing down.

As he recalls it, about two minutes passed as he rallied three generations of Lords to run across the street to the neighbors' basement. His father, Paul, was halfway across the road, and Chad was in the front yard beckoning others to follow when the rising locomotive-like roar and clatter of debris hitting homes stopped them in their tracks. The tornado was perhaps 100 yards away, and closing.

Both men turned to sprint back into their house as Chad shouted for the rest of the family to take shelter in an interior room.

Paul tripped, but nearly caught up as Chad reached the front door. Chad turned and gripped his father's hand to pull him into the house just as the twister hit. Winds yanked Paul out of Chad's grasp and into the night and blew Chad back down a hall, where he came to a stop near a bathroom. He opened the door, he recalls, hoping to find shelter in a tub, only to find nothing on the other side of the door.

Then a fireplace collapsed, covering him in debris.

In 10 seconds, he says, it was over.

Survivor awe and science

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