Moore Struck Again

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The first reports of damage, deaths and injuries are beginning to trickle in from today’s monster tornado that moved through Moore, Oklahoma. The staggering numbers and images are hard to comprehend.

Just like after Katrina, Joplin, and Tuscaloosa we’re reminded of nature’s power, fury, and cruel indifference. Throughout my life the weather has fascinated me. Whether it’s a Tornado,  blizzard,  or nor’easter for as long as I can remember I’ve found myself glued to a TV or window or standing outside in any kind of storm. It’s days like today that we’re reminded that nature’s incredible power can change lives and towns in an instant. Forecasts are better. Warnings are better. Sometimes no matter how good the warning or forecast or preparation or communication some storms are impossible to survive.

Moore, Oklahoma is no stranger to violent tornadoes. The F5 Bridge Creek-Moore tornado on May 3, 1999 was one of the most documented, photographed, and well forecast tornadoes in history. Parts of Moore were simply swept away. On May 20, 2013 history found a way of repeating itself.

The 1999 tornado was tracked live by local TV stations via helicopter much like this storm. The National Weather Service in Norman issued the first ever “Tornado Emergency” for Moore in 1999 just like they did today.

May 3, 1999 tornado emergency

May 3, 1999 tornado emergency from the NWS in Norman, OK

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When a tornado become violent (EF-4/EF-5) surviving a direct hit, even if you take proper precautions, becomes difficult.  This is how the radar looked through the storm’s evolution from Newcastle to Southwest Oklahoma City to Moore.

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On radar you can see the monstrously large debris ball that gets larger and larger  as more homes are chewed up and lofted along the tornado’s path.

This tornado will undoubtedly join the list of historic U.S. tornadoes – a list that has been growing too quickly in the last few years.

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Massachusetts Tornado – 1 Year Later

It’s hard to believe that already one year has passed since one of New England’s most significant tornadoes in history. The 39-mile long Westfield to Charlton tornado has joined the pantheon of significant New England tornadoes that includes the 1953 Worcester tornado, 1989 Hamden tornado, and 1979 Windsor Locks tornado.

Of the greatest southern New England tornadoes this was one of the only ones we were able to watch develop with “new” technology like Doppler Radar. The images were frightening.

While a tornado warning wasn’t issued for an excruciating 15 minutes while the Albany radar showed a tornado vortex signature, the storm was already tearing up neighborhoods in Westfield and West Springfield. By the time the warning was issued and the storm was getting ready to cross the Connecticut River we saw it all unfold live on WWLP’s live camera in Springfield.

The storm was a monster as it moved out of Springfield but became even stronger in Monson and Brimfield. The pictures and videos are terrifying. This was how the storm looked on Doppler Radar.

BOX storm relative velocity and base reflectivity

I have seen debris ball signatures on radar like this countless times. In Joplin, in Tuscaloosa, and Greensburg, and countless other unlucky towns and cities across the country. To see the same signature in New England, on our local radar, in towns I know and have been to many times, the storm hit way too close to home.

Several weeks ago I traveled back to Massachusetts to see how the rebuilding effort was going. They’re getting there. Neighborhoods are springing back to life and for many spirits are high. There’s no question it’s been an extremely challenging year as so many lost so much in just seconds last June 1st.

I ran into one family in Brimfield a couple days after the tornado whose house was completely swept away. There was nothing left. They didn’t want to speak on camera then but I spoke with for 10 or 15 minutes about the storm, their ordeal, and what they planned on doing next. A couple weeks ago, by chance, I ran into them again in their neighborhood while we were getting video for an anniversary special we were putting together. Their rebuilding plans are moving forward slowly and though none of this has been easy they seem determined to move past that terrible day. Here is a before and after picture of their Brimfield home.  I had only seen the foundation of the house and a pile of debris right after the storm. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the email they sent me with these attached.

I learned a lot on June 1st. I think I take my job to help protect and educate people about the dangers of severe weather even more seriously than before after seeing what a storm like this one can do right in our backyard. We’re all guilty of getting lulled into a false sense of security here in Connecticut saying “those kinds of things happen other place” but they certainly can happen right here and have in the past. It’s been 23 years since the last violent tornado in Connecticut – that’s a long time! Even longer, it’s been 74 years since the last major hurricane to strike Connecticut!

What happened was a terrible tragedy for people in the path of the June 1st tornado. Hopefully we can take the lessons from that day and use them to provide better forecasts, better warnings, and better education before the next storm strikes. Those lessons were hopefully learned from the National Weather Service, media, and private meteorologists right on down to local governments, first responders and residents.

While we’ll never be able to prevent devastating storms like this one hopefully we can mitigate their impact by better preparedness and better warnings.

A year after standing in the middle of Monson just 2 hours after getting hit by the tornado my thoughts are with everyone impacted by the storm.  It’s been a long road for most people hit by the tornado, but if the people I have spoken with recently are any indication, the human spirit is remarkably resilient and life is slowly returning to a new sense of normal.

The Hampden County Tornado Through Doppler Radar

In the coming weeks meteorologists will be looking back at the Hampden County tornado trying to learn something from the unique set of meteorological conditions that came together on June 1st. All the signals were there for a classic, significant, and high end severe weather event.

Unfortunately the tornado that hit Springfield did so without warning. The National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts covers Hampden County and didn’t issue a tornado warning until 13 minutes after the tornado was on the ground. It appears part of the issue was that the radar in Taunton was unable to sample the storm well until the storm was over Westfield (and moments away from producing a tornado). The Albany radar, which was initially closer to the storm, had a much better vantage point and had  indications that a tornado may be forming well before the warning was issued.

Here’s the radar from Taunton (BOX) at 4:08 p.m. This image shows reds or winds blowing away from the radar and greens where wind is blow toward the radar.

BOX Storm Relative Velocity 4:08 p.m.

This storm is too far from the radar site and range folding is taking place. RF occurs when radiation from the echo is sent back to the radar site in Taunton after the radar has emitted a second pulse of energy. The radar is unable to resolve whether the energy scattered back to the site is from an echo far away or nearby. The purple shading on the radar is RF.

The Albany radar (ENX), however, is able to sample the echo well without range folding.

ENX Storm Relative Velocity 4:06 p.m.

You can see in this radar shot the tornado vortex signature clear as day 6 miles west of Westfield coming off the Berkshire Hills into the Valley. The “couplet” of greens next to reds indicates winds blowing in opposite directions in a very short horizontal distance. This indicates that at 6,000 feet above the ground this storm is rapidly rotating and capable of producing a tornado. There is about 75 knots of gate-to-gate shear in this image which means the difference between inbound and outbound velocities in neighboring pixels is about 85 mph.

The following radar image at 4:11 p.m. indicates that the couplet has weakened some with only 50 knots of gate to gate shear but 5 minutes later at 4:16 p.m. the couplet rapidly tightens with over 110 knots of gate to gate shear virtually over Westfield.

4:11 p.m. and 4:16 p.m. ENX Storm Relative Velocity

Shortly after these radar scans the storm comes out of range fold on the BOX radar and by 4:22 p.m. BOX has 2 consecutive radar scans with over 100 knots of gate to gate shear between Westfield and West Springfield.

BOX Storm Relative Velocity 4:22 p.m.

The range folding on Doppler radar is unavoidable. However between 4:06 and 4:30 at least one radar (ENX or BOX) indicated a very strong low level mesocyclone during each volume scan. The tornado warning did not come out until 24 minutes after radar indicated a rotating (sometimes very strongly) storm. In fact the tornado touchdown (at 4:17 p.m.) wasn’t even preceded by a severe thunderstorm warning (that came at 4:18 p.m.).

Once the tornado warning came out the radar signatures became more impressive with a couplet, hook echo, and debris ball just as impressive as anything you’d see in Oklahoma. In fact this was probably one the more impressive set of radar images I’ve ever seen.

BOX storm relative velocity and base reflectivity at 5:04 p.m.

This storm shows the limitations and the power of Doppler radar. Switching the radar into VCP 212 with more slices and faster update times increases the range fold problem. Having to monitor multiple radar sites for a storm that can only be sampled between 6-7,000 feet AGL at the lowest slice adds to the difficulty in warning a storm like this. The National Weather Service does a phenomenal job almost all the time with some of the best minds and best technology in the field. Unfortunately this is one of the rare times a strong tornado struck a highly populated area without warning.

Given the amount of YouTube video shot from downtown Westfield of the tornado touching down around 4:17 p.m I am at a loss for how news of the touchdown didn’t reach the NWS. To the best of my knowldge confirmation of the touchdown didn’t make it to the National Weather Service until the storm was over Springfield nearly 15 minutes later! Did local law enforcement or storm spotters not relay information to the NWS?  With a strong tornado traveling through a populated suburb of Springfield in broad daylight it’s a problem that the NWS did not know about it for nearly 13 minutes.

Barnes Airport did report a funnel cloud at 4:24 p.m. but they did not report an actual touchdown. This appears to be the first report of a funnel cloud the NWS received but it’s unclear when the report actually made it to the person who was issuing the warnings.

Being unable to clearly sample a storm near the surface increases the difficulty of issuing accurate warnings. Not getting ground truth reports from affected areas makes the situation even worse.  The National Weather Service also has to be careful not to issue warnings for every storm that rotates to avoid the Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome.  It’s a fine line that they and the media walk in storms like this.

We will all learn from this storm and hopefully the public will learn how important it is to take tornado warnings seriously.