This month it’s been 25 years that the classic movie “Twister” made its debut in theaters around the nation. The iconic movie about storm chasers after a monster EF-5 tornado takes place in Wakita, Oklahoma.
The debut happened during the peak of tornado season in the heart of tornado alley. Many have heard of tornado alley and associate it with the Sooner state, but there’s a little more to it.
Did you know the tornado threat in the United States shifts in different seasons? It’s true, but the biggest thing to remember is that tornadoes can and have happened in all 50 states resulting in devastating loss and even death.
Each year during the cooler months the tornado threat is higher in the southeastern U.S., but as the spring months start to warm up in May and June it shifts to the central Plains and by summer to the northern Plains and Midwest. That doesn’t mean tornadoes can’t form in other months, they can, and will with proper conditions.
Meteorologist Troy Bridges recalls his time spent as a storm chaser in Oklahoma City in the early 2000s.
“I spent many days driving out two to three hours from OKC to western Oklahoma to watch supercell storms form into tornadoes,” Bridges said, who even witnessed three tornadoes drop from a wall cloud in a matter of minutes in October.
When the term “peak tornado season” is used it’s referring to when the most tornadoes are seen in the nation. That happens to be May into June for states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. These states fall into Tornado Alley because the type of supercells that form there can produce violent tornadoes rated EF-2 or higher.
It’s all about the “dry line”, says Bridges and went on to say “Most large scale tornadoes form supercells that develop along the dryline.”
In the movie “Twister” storm chasers Jo & Bill are after a rare EF-5 tornado. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, only 0.1% of all tornadoes that form in a year achieve EF-5 status. These powerful forces of nature produce 200+ mph winds that can level foundations to even strong homes and even send cars flying in the air distances as far as the length of a football field.
On average the U.S. sees over one thousand tornadoes each year. That means roughly 20 can be violent and one may even reach EF-5 status.
Bridges recalls his adrenaline pumping while covering many tornadoes in Oklahoma and even Texas, but says he had other feelings too, “I always had a sinking feeling in my heart knowing that each one of the tornadoes had the potential to destroy people’s lives.”
In Oklahoma, the second most deadly tornado ripped through the town of Snyder on May 10th, 1905. Over one hundred years later it’s still one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history making the top 20. That day 97 people lost their lives. According to the National Weather Service historical record search, the actual number of victims may not ever be known.
Texas also has a history of EF-5 tornadoes. The tornado outbreak from May 9th-11th in 1953 tops the list of the deadliest tornado in Texas since 1900. During this period 33 tornadoes were reported from Minnesota to Texas. The worst one was the EF-5 that destroyed the city of Waco on May 11th. That took the lives of 114 people and left 597 others injured.
Typical during spring, the dryline formed which separates moist and dry air, sparking strong storms in the late afternoon. Out of a supercell, the tornado touched down just after 4 p.m. in Lorena just to the southwest of Waco. The massive tornado was 1/3 mile wide and wrapped in rain as it barreled down a 23-mile long path right through the heart of Waco at the end of a workday.
Over 600 homes and businesses were destroyed. A six-story furniture store collapsed and killed 30 people. The destruction was so massive many survivors had to wait up to 14 hours to be rescued. Damages added up to $41 million, which today would be $406 billion. The Goliad tornado of 1900 had the same number of victims but falls behind the Waco tornado with a lot fewer people left injured at the time. The injured added up to 250.
A month later Texas A&M University along with the U.S. Weather Bureau organized the Texas Tornado Warning Conference committed to changing the tornado warning system by coming up with a more efficient tornado warning system to prevent casualties like what was witnessed that previous May. It was successful. It not only led to better communication but the SKYWARN storm spotter program was established and still runs today.
“The more eyes on the storm or tornado the better. By seeing the tornado in person, we can back up what the radar is showing back at the tv station” says Bridges. The result, keeping people alive.