I know I haven't blogged in a while. There are currently seven posts in the queue that are in some state of being written that I started and then promptly forgot in everyday life. Tonight however, I find myself unable to sleep and need to write. Write to free my mind and try to unload the events of the last 2 days.
I have been in Norman, Oklahoma participating in the Experimental Warning Program; you can read the details in the link but the Cliff's Notes version is that we are testing ways to better display experimental weather information to aid NWS meteorologists in issuing warnings that are used to (hopefully) protect lives and property. Our project was ongoing the evening of May 24th and several tornadoes developed across Oklahoma. One was heading towards our location and was getting close enough that evacuations to the storm shelter were ordered for non-essential personnel. After it became apparent that the storm was going to miss the testing center, I went to the roof and just missed the dissipation of the tornado coming close to us but was able to see debris falling from the sky; mainly leaves but occasional pieces of housing material as well. A haunting feeling to know that we came that close to having a tornado ram into our facility.
Many of you hear on the news the intensity of a tornado rated in the Enhanced Fujita, or EF, scale. This scale is based on 41 years of research roughly being able to tie together the wind speeds inside a tornado that can cause a certain type of damage (see the link for a more detailed look). These surveys are done in most cases by employees of the local NWS Office. However, on May 24th there were so many tornadoes over such a large area that multiple teams were needed to drive and walk through the areas of damage to determine the intensity of the storms.
Because I have prior experience in surveys and was in Norman, I was asked to survey a portion of a tornado from near Calumet, OK to northeast of Piedmont, OK. This tornado so far has resulted in 7 fatalities (10 total from the 24th in Oklahoma) and unknown numbers of injuries along it's nearly 58 mile total path length. I have surveyed damage swaths before, but nothing to this extent. I cannot release too many details at this point because the discussions are ongoing, but the only time I have ever seen damage this bad was back in the late 90s near Castell, TX. The Castell tornado was so strong that it sucked asphalt pavement off the road and left little in it's path.
I guess the best way to say this is that I am haunted right now by the scenes I came upon. Peoples lives were strewn over miles of countryside, nothing much left of their homes but kindling for a fire. Cars looking as if an angry child threw them with all their strength after beating them up with a meat hammer. Horses, cattle, and pigs disemboweled across the countryside or someones beloved dog getting ready to be dumped into a hastily dug grave which is nothing more than a pit dug by a backhoe. Tree trunks with limbs gone and all that left is a trunk missing the bark and the stubs of the tree limbs sticking out as if they were some freakishly amputated arms. Household goods intermixed with dirt, grass, and who knows what else stuck in fence or barbed wire from somewhere a few miles away. I have never been in a war zone but I believe this is as close as one can get without being shot at.
Then there are the smells that linger in my nose a full day after the survey. The mix of Diesel, gear and motor oil, and other fluids from the crumpled masses of 18-wheelers. Leaking natural gas or propane. Something of a mix of fresh cut grass, freshly plowed fields after a rain, and the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh. The occasional whiff of a house that reminds me of someones home I was a guest in many, many years ago. Strong odors of pine, cedar, and other trees across the region that are split wide open. And then the dust containing God knows what; not the smell of dust like I have in Lubbock way too often, but something else that is nasty. Unclean. Ghastly.
However, the thing that haunts me the most is the fact that I had to walk through a neighborhood where search and cadaver dogs were still seeking the faint scent of a 3-year old boy missing since he was ripped from his mother's arms in their home when the tornado hit. His 12-month old brother didn't make it through the storm and his pregnant mother is in the hospital with serious injuries (unborn baby is O.K.) while his uninjured father was frantically searching from him after driving in after the tornado hit. We had to go and look and see what was left of this home, to see how the home was constructed, and to see what was left to try and determine what hellish winds were being produced by that tornado. Meanwhile, not 75 to 100 yards away was the remnants of a "safe room", a fortified haven for a different family to survive this exact same tornado without getting a scratch on them.
After the 13-hour damage survey marathon on Wednesday, I got back to my hotel exhausted but glad that I had a hotel to come home to. As I washed the red Oklahoma dust and other particles of whatever was floating in the air that afternoon off my skin and out of my hair, I kept running over what we saw. I still had to sit down and go back through all the pictures to better locate where all the damage was and how wide the tornado track will be. Will we be able to determine how strong the tornado was by my pictures and descriptions alone? Was there something I missed. What could I have done differently. I didn't get far; the internet connections were down and I was too tired to keep my mind awake so I pretty much collapsed last night and fell into a restless sleep.
Tonight however is different. I returned to my hotel a couple of hours ago after having dinner with good friends and co-workers laughing it up, having a hot meal, good beer, and times of fellowship. With a bunch of meteorologists hanging around each other, conversations naturally turned to retelling stories of previous experiences. I didn't think much of it at the time but the emotions started to "percolate" under the surface of a strong emotional facade. Tossing and turning in bed however, there is nothing to keep them in check and they hammer away at the front of consciousness. Tears have come and gone for the hell that people are having to go through even though they are shining examples of feeling blessed that they are still alive even though that is all they have right now.
The tears flow however because this morning I found out that they found the missing boy in the lake that I walked around not just 12 hours before about 400 yards from where his room was once located. The local media outlets had Ryan's face plastered on their newscasts and webpages, likely to "connect" with their audiences. For me however, a particular face is now burned into my memory as one that was taken WAY too early in his life by a force of nature I am tasked to try and predict and warn for.
There were others that didn't survive this tornado or the other ones across Oklahoma this night, or any of the tornadoes that you have seen across your news outlet or internets from across the United States this spring. However, this feels personal. More questions arise, questions I will never have answers to until I stand before Jesus and can finally ask Him. Why this young child in particular? Why take a tornado over populated areas as opposed to open country. Why turn the tornado heading straight for us where we had a large safe harbor for many people away and let it dissipate while tearing another across part of the countryside and take the lives away from a family that didn't have a safe place to go.
I cannot show them just yet but I will have some pictures that will not do justice to the sensory experience from the 24th and 25th. They may just give you enough of a glimpse into the power that I saw out northwest of Oklahoma City...and definitely serve as a reminder for me as to things that may come in the future anywhere my loved ones, family, friends, or myself may be located. However, there are too many questions that will take a long while to fade away...at least until the next tornado occurs and this meteorologist has to go out and find a different set of answers. And these, along with the other images will once again crop up...
UPDATE 5/30: I wanted to share a link from a fellow meteorologist and good friend that experienced a similar gamut of emotions and feelings; take a look at the bottom half of his essay here. The 3 May 1999 outbreak is a very similar analog to what happened on 24 May 2011. We (being the meteorological community) will continue to learn what worked well and went wrong with this event, and I must commend the people of Oklahoma for the resiliency of their spirit and mind throughout the area I surveyed. And yes, pictures are coming as soon as the Norman NWS office completes the effort in rating the tornadoes across Oklahoma. For those impatient to see the destruction for some reason, another fellow meteorologist and good friend shares these thoughts on why it is a good thing for those involved in storm ratings and assessments to take our time.