Oklahoma tornado chasers thrown off road as twister rips into fleeing motorists

Tornadoes again struck the Oklahoma City area Friday, this time taking aim at panicked motorists – including a TV crew – and highlighting the danger of facing down a tornado in a vehicle.

Jim Beckel/The Oklahoman/AP
Overturned trucks block a frontage road off I-40 just east of 81 in El Reno, Okla., after a tornado moved through the area on Friday.

A multiple-vortex tornado rose from the plains and ripped across busy Oklahoma City highways during Friday’s rush hour, killing at least five people, and at one point flinging a tornado-chasing vehicle nearly 200 yards floating and tumbling into a field.

Coming just over a week after an F-5 tornado with 210 mile-per-hour winds devastated the city’s populous southern suburbs, killing 24, the latest tornado emergency didn’t hit with the same force, but served as a reminder of the dangers of getting caught by a tornado while in traffic.

While emergency officials often warn people against trying to escape from a tornado in a car, it’s a common practice in Oklahoma, which has more tornado-disasters per year than any other state.

Some have credited the relatively low casualty count from the May 20 F-5 tornado to residents escaping the area in their cars. Lingering anxiety about that twister may have pushed more people to use their cars as escape pods in an area where fewer than a third of homes have storm shelters, authorities said Friday evening. 

“I’m wondering if the tornadoes from a couple of weeks ago didn’t frighten people so badly that this time they were taking no chances and trying to evade it by car,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said, according to NBC News. “That’s a very unwise thing to do because it's the absolute worst place you can be during a tornado.”

A mother and baby were among the five killed, when their car was flipped by one of the wedge vortexes that spun down out of a torrent of rain. A stretch of I-40 just west of Oklahoma City appears to have taken the brunt of the impact, with beat up auto carcasses scattered on and off roadways. Nearly seven inches of rain also brought flash floods, which pose the greatest risk to motorists.

Among those who survived a direct hit from Friday’s massive twister were The Weather Channel’s “Tornado Hunt 2013” crew, one of several gangs of tornado chasers that regularly work the High Plains. Three crew members inside the Yukon SUV were scratched and bruised, but otherwise okay, after attempting unsuccessfully to outflank the oncoming twister.

“We saw a big giant wedge tornado, a rain-wrapped tornado, and we were trying to get away from it,” crew member Mike Bettes told the Weather channel.

“The vehicle I was in, we took a ride,” Mr. Bettes said. “The tornado threw us about 200 yards. I’m speechless. That was the scariest moment of my life. We were floating, then tumbling, we tumbled I don’t know how many times, and then we were airborne, just floating and then we weren’t tumbling, and then we came down hard.”

Heavy rains made the tornado difficult to spot for motorists, Bruce Thoren, a National Weather Service meteorologist, told the Associated Press.

"Somebody driving along really not familiar with what's going on can basically drive into it,” he said.

Also making matters worse was that traffic slowed to a near-stall as the tornado cloud moved in around 6:30 local time, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported,  turning motorists into “sitting ducks on the interstate,” spokeswoman Betsy Randolph told CNN.

Because of a cool spring, tornado season arrived nearly a month late to “tornado alley,” but turbulent weather – caused primarily by cool air from the north clashing violently with humid air from the Gulf of Mexico – is now in full swing, bringing an edge to daily life in places like Oklahoma City, which has now officially become the bull’s-eye on America’s tornado map.

With more turbulent weather in the forecast, authorities are again warning residents to avoid using their cars to escape another tornado emergency.

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