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Oklahoma tornado: How accurate were predictions?

The devastation that the tornado wreaked on Moore, Okla., highlights both the progress forecasters have made and the remaining challenges they face in predicting such events.

By Staff writer / May 21, 2013

A fire burns in the Tower Plaza Addition in Moore, Okla., following Monday afternoon's powerful twister.

Sue Ogrocki/AP

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A 2013 tornado season that began with a whimper has suddenly ramped up with all the explosiveness of the powerful tornado-generating thunderstorms that have erupted in the past few days – with Moore, Okla., taking the brunt.

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The death toll from Monday afternoon's powerful twister stands at 24, a number that public-safety officials have said is likely to rise as search-and-rescue teams carefully pick through rubble in the hunt for survivors.

Forecasters at the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office in Norman, Okla., have given the twister a preliminary rating of EF-4, the second-highest rating on the tornado-severity scale, with winds ranging from 166 to 200 miles an hour. It could well be increased to an EF-5, with winds exceeding 200 miles an hour, after forecasters complete post-storm damage surveys.

Indeed, the storm was powerful enough to lift some of the lighter debris it generated and deposit it around Tulsa, Okla., some 100 miles away.

Moore is no stranger to EF-5 twisters. In 1999, such a tornado spun its way through the city, following much the same path as Monday's twister. That event killed 36 people, destroyed 1,800 homes, and damaged another 2,500. After adjusting for inflation, the tornado inflicted $1.4 billion in damage – the fourth most costly tornado on record in the United States. Some specialists say they expect the damage from Monday's tornado to overtake the current recordholder of $2.8 billion – the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., in May 2011.

The devastation wreaked on Moore highlights both the progress forecasters have made and the remaining challenges they face in predicting such events.

Based on a large-scale weather pattern favoring severe thunderstorms that persisted through the weekend, forecasters had a good bead on where and when the highest risk for large, damaging hail and tornadoes would present itself.

On Sunday, tornadoes erupted in the region, including an EF-4 that hit Shawnee, Okla., Sunday – an event that killed two people but inflicted relatively little structural damage because the track went over mostly rural areas.

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