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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Poitras

The May 31, 2013 El Reno Oklahoma Tornado - A Day of Tragedy

Photo credit: Taken by NWS/NOAA personnel as part of a damage survey. Photo of Tim Samaras's Chevrolet Cobalt, that was recovered after the EF-3 tornado that struck El Reno, Oklahoma, on May 31, 2013.

In the early evening hours on May 31, 2013, the first signs of rotation in the thunderstorm clouds above El Reno, Oklahoma were evident. These circulations quickly turned into an EF-3 tornado, packing winds that peaked at 301 mph (484 km/h), and was the widest recorded tornado in U.S. history, covering a width of 2.6 miles (4.2 km). This tornado lasted on the ground for 40 minutes and caused $35 to $40 million dollars in damage. The hardest hit areas came in Canadian county (where the city of El Reno is, and is just west of Oklahoma City), and areas immediately south of El Reno, Oklahoma.

The highest winds in this tornado were eligible to be considered as an EF-5 rating, however, these EF-5 type of winds were in the storm sub-vortices, which did not damage any buildings or homes. Thus, with accordance to National Weather Service (NWS) policy on issuing EF-ratings (which is that they need to have proof of damage caused by the tornado), the storm surveyors were unable to find damage that proved that this tornado was strong enough to be classified as an EF-5 tornado.

Unfortunately, the tornado claimed eight lives, and injured another 151 people. The sub-vortices that contained EF-5 winds, and the fact that the tornado took an unexpected turn, caught people off guard (even the most trained professionals), which is the primary cause for the loss of life, and numerous injuries. This was also the case for storms chasers, in which four of the eight deaths were storm chasers. This was the first time a storm chaser and/or meteorologist, died from storm related causes.

Ultimately, it was these violent sub-vortices that tragically claimed the life of pioneer engineer, and storm chaser, Tim Samaras along with his son Paul Samaras, and Tim's long time storm chaser partner, Carl Young. Tim Samaras was part of the team called Twistex, which conducted research to better understand how Tornadoes form, and thus to ultimately give people a longer warning time in the wake of a tornado emergency. At 6:23 p.m. CDT on Friday May 31, 2013, near the El Reno regional airport Tim and Paul Samaras, along with Carl Young were killed when the tornado took an unexpected turn towards their car, where they were struck by violent sub-vortices.

This day will be forever etched in the memories of the residents living in El Reno Oklahoma, and surrounding areas. May 31, 2013 will also never be forgotten by the storm chaser, and meteorological community, as it is a sorrow reminder that anyone can be caught off guard by Mother Nature. Sadly and ironically, six years ago today, a respected pioneer in the field, died from the same type of storm that he devoted his life to research and save future lives from.


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