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.
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"Notice the things not damaged," LaDue says. A room on the back of one blown-out garage is still standing. "This would have been a good place to take shelter," he says.Skip to next paragraph
At this point, LaDue says he's inclined to give the twister a solid EF2 rating – indicating three-second wind gusts of between 111 and 135 miles an hour at the points where damage occurred – wind speeds comparable to a category 3 hurricane packed into a narrow funnel.
But then he walks up the block where volunteers are working through rubble that was the Lords' house, helping the family salvage what they can. As LaDue approaches and scans the debris and the foundation rim, he quietly observes: "This is an interesting candidate – all walls down, large house, anchor bolts."
Another two-story home next door is still standing, with low-end damage from the tornado itself, and collateral damage from the collapse of the Lords' home. At this point on its path, the tornado was one house wide. "A drill press," LaDue calls it.
Sue Lord, Chad's mother, approaches, and LaDue asks, "Were you here?"
"Yes, we rode it out," she says, explaining that her son Chad's warning sent her and other family members into an interior bathroom. Sue's daughter and grandson hunkered down in a bathtub; her other grandson huddled as far under the toilet tank as he could get, with Sue shielding him. Sue's son-in-law crawled under a built-in makeup table. The twister's suction pulled the toilet out of the floor, she explains, yet she and her grandson were unscathed.
Despite the harrowing experience of losing his dad's grasp in the twister, Chad marveled at the tornado's capriciousness. One moment, an ottoman was in front of a couch, complete with leg coasters. The next moment, the ottoman and couch had reversed positions – with the coasters still under each leg.
"Everything on top of you and you still made it," LaDue says with a tinge of awe. "You guys are surely blessed."
Over time, documenting experiences like this one, as well as those that end more tragically, can put one's own life and family into a new context, say LaDue and others involved in post-storm survey work.
For Smith, who acknowledges that on the open prairie, a supercell and tornado can still be things of beauty, "each time I go and walk through storm damage, it tempers that. It reminds me over and over that this is not a video game or a TV show. When we see those blobs on radar and there are tornadoes in those storms, this is a life-changing event" for someone.
LaDue says that he and his wife built their home in Norman before they were as keenly aware of the range of damage tornadoes can inflict – and they're now upgrading and are in the market for a storm shelter.
Haag Engineering's Marshall, who not only conducts surveys for Haag's clients but also works with the NWS on surveys and was one of the architects of the new tornado-intensity scale, says the work has changed him in profound ways. He doesn't put as much stock in personal possessions as he used to, before he started his work in forensic engineering. The resilience of survivors he's interviewed "has shown me that it really doesn't matter." The loss of a couch, a piece of china, or even a treasured photo is "not worth getting so upset about if you've got your life."
'It was kickin'!'
Sue and Chad move back into the flow of salvaging what they can from the debris when a voice booms out: "Hey, are you guys from The New York Times?"
Up strides Paul, his brow swathed in a thick layer of white gauze. "I don't know how my family came out of it," he says, voice cracking slightly. "It was a gift of God." Then he asks: "What are they rating this?"
LaDue replies that he's working on that.
"I can tell you how fast the wind was blowing," Paul deadpans. Then, he exclaims: "It was kickin'! It ... was ... kickin'!"