May 27th, 2008
01:20 PM ET

160+ tornados in less than a week: Why?

KWTV news chopper pilot Mason Dunn describes how he chased a series of tornados in Oklahoma to get some amazing video
KWTV news chopper pilot Mason Dunn describes how he chased a series of tornados in Oklahoma to get some amazing video

Jacqui Jeras
CNN Meteorologist

Incredible! What a weekend.

In all my years as a professional meteorologist and spending my younger years living in tornado alley, I have never witnessed anything near the unpredictable, awesome power of the tornado that crawled across Hennessey, OK on Saturday. I was watching north central Oklahoma for the threat of tornadoes and a warning was issued for Kingfisher and Garfield counties. Next thing I know, my newsroom executive producer is running over telling me to get hooked up, we have live chopper shots of a possible tornado; they want me on the air.

We broke into programming just before 3:30p.m. EDT. Along with our CNN audience, I witnessed a large rotating wall cloud with a slight lowering. It turned into a funnel that gradually lowered to the ground and became a large, violent tornado. It was a classic looking “stovepipe” tornado, meaning it was very straight, up and down. The clarity of the funnel was amazing. It was in the middle of a field. Moments later, it leveled a hog farm. The roof was peeled away and debris was flying everywhere. It was an eerie feeling seeing this happen live, not knowing the status of the people that could have been in the building. A minute later, the tornado lifts. (It turns out, there were 6 employees that were in the barn, who ran into a brick office building and all were uninjured. Most of the pigs and piglets survived, too!)

We rewind the tape, and show the tornado bearing down on the barn. Next thing we know, another tornado has formed and is on the ground. Back to live aerials. This happened 11 more times, and miraculously the tornadoes never hit any other structures. Due to the slow movement of the parent storm, Lake Carl Blackwell was evacuated, and I-35 was shut down to allow the tornado to pass. This undoubtedly helped save lives. Most tornadoes move much faster than this, usually somewhere between 30-40mph. They can rip along as fast as 65 mph.

The storm was a persistent supercell that didn’t stop rotating until 6 hours after the first touchdown. The pictures were likely so good and Helicopter Pilot Mason Dunn of KWTV in Oklahoma City was likely able to stay with the storm so long, because it was out there all by itself and was moving so slowly. There were no other storms to try and avoid or make the air more turbulent. It was an LP storm, or Low Precipitation, so, the tornado wasn’t wrapped in rain providing clear shot. Dunn knew what he was doing. He’s a legend in the Oklahoma City area. He was in contact with his meteorologist back at the TV station the entire time.

Dunn says he has been chasing tornadoes for about 20 years, and was in awe of what he saw. I’ve had a lot of people ask me since Saturday why would he do this, isn’t it unsafe? Won’t this draw people to the tornado instead of encouraging them to seek shelter? What Dunn and KWTV did, was a tremendous community service. Because he is trained and knew where to safely shoot the tornado, many people knew exactly where the tornado was and where it was going, giving them the best information possible to keep them safe. Of course there is always a risk, and Dunn said despite being about 2 miles from the storm, he could feel the pull of the tornado and had to work to stay far enough away from it.

Saturday’s tornado was just one of more than 150 twisters that ripped through the nation’s midsection over 5 day’s time. It all started on Thursday with the monster in Colorado. Friday, Kansas was hardest hit including an EF4 tornado that flattened 3 houses in Quinter. The winds were nearly 200mph! Saturday…the Hennessey tornado, and then Sunday, 5 miles from the home I grew up in, a tornado struck and caused catastrophic damage in Hugo, MN, a suburb or the Twin Cities. A two year old was killed, that child’s sibling is in critical condition, and their Mom and Dad are in the hospital with injuries. All this, despite ample warning that the tornado was on the way, and the sirens were blaring.

Sometimes it just breaks your heart to know that no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how great the meteorologists in Minnesota are, no matter how much we understand the science of storms, no matter how great Doppler radar is, how great technology is… sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do except pray. 150 homes damaged, 50 destroyed.

The Holiday weekend had many Minnesotans at their cabins (that’s Lake Home to the rest of you), and authorities say the death toll and number of injuries would have likely been much worse otherwise.

This same evening, a massive tornado struck and demolished about half of the city of Parkersburg, IA. 8 people are dead from that storm. From the video I’ve seen, it doesn’t get much worse than this.

Monday, we were staring down day 5 of tornadoes, and today will be day 6 before the pattern quiets down. May is historically the busiest month for tornadoes. If all 167 tornadoes from the past 4 days verify, we will have seen as many tornadoes in the last 5 months as we would typically see in an entire calendar year. The same is true for the number of tornado related deaths. Why? We don’t know for sure. Part of it is likely due to the jet stream pattern that is being influenced by La Nina (the unusual cooling of the equatorial waters in the Pacific that impacts the large scale circulation). Another reason for our high numbers is due to all the tornadoes in February on Super Tuesday. It’s quite rare to have an outbreak like that in the middle of winter.

On Memorial Day, we focused on those that have served our country in the military. But, this weekend will take on a new meaning for the hundreds of people whose lives have changed forever from these storms.

Filed under: Tornados
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. TED

    As soon as I started reading this thread about the tornados I knew someone would start the global warming hype. Look up the numbers. The Earth is cooler now in 2008 than it was in 1998–cooler not warmer! We heard all the same dire predictions back in the 70s. The difference was that back then we were being told that it was cooling that was the big threat. Well the Earth didn't become a big frozen tundra back then and it's not going to become a sweltering inferno now. The weather (including temperature) goes in cycles. It cooled for a while then warmed for a while. This year we've cooled again. Does it really make any sense to expect that the Earth is going to stay exactly the same temperature every year? Of course not! The real threat we face is not global warming (or cooling) it is the prospect of a carbon tax. If that ever happens it will be the end of the free world.

    May 27, 2008 at 10:54 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    I have been astonished by the number of tornadoes this year. In Alabama we get a fair number of them too but so far this year its been pretty quiet; I guess the western states got our share too. I hope that the tornado season will be over soon; its a helpless feeling to hear the tornado roaring toward your house and you while you wonder if your shelter place is really going to to be safe in the storm.

    Thanks for the coverage and the pictures. I feel for the people who were in the path of these tornadoes. Seeing the footage though was a little surreal.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 27, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  3. seah ohio

    With all the Space launches things seem to increase.

    Go figure we take oil out from under the ground, Im sure it is there for a purpose. we do not replace it with anything that is equitable.

    We send space shuttles and things up Just blast them through the protected layers of the earth.

    The major was we are abusing the planet.

    Going green won't help nothing. It is the major reasons out of the control of the common folks.

    May 27, 2008 at 9:12 pm |
  4. Lynn

    This is normal for this time of year. Coming from the midwest, this is not unusual. We haven't had as many tornadoes in the past 30 years but then we didn't have the winter like we had last year in 30 years. Its all relative.

    Yes, Virginia, there is global warming.

    May 27, 2008 at 8:52 pm |
  5. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    OK, I admit it. I watched The Wizard of Oz one too many times as a kid and have a fear of tornadoes. I'll take a hurricane with storm surge any day over this. At least with a hurricane there is time to get out of its way. I hope the weather settles down. I know we have natural ebbs and flows, but this is a bit ridiculous. They are predicting a pretty big hurricane season. If the tornadoes are any indication, I'm flying to New York if the projected path even looks like it might come to my piece of Louisiana.

    May 27, 2008 at 8:17 pm |
  6. Mari, Salt Lake City

    BUT... hey there is no global warming, its a figment of far-left-wackoos.


    May 27, 2008 at 7:28 pm |
  7. Betty Pink

    WOW! It is truly amazing how the power of nature affects us and dictates our destiny. We are extremely intelligent species and that is one of the reasons why we always want answers. it is only natural for us to want more information in order to prevent catastrophes like these. However, the sad truth is that our planet has been evolving every since it was created and it will continue to do so for many centuries after we are gone. Life has only existed in this planet for a tiny speck of time compared to the total life spasm of planet Earth. It is our gift and our curse to have evolved and develop to the point where a natural process becomes a tragic disaster in our lives. I think that all we can do as humans is to rely on people like CNN Meteorologist Jacqui Jeras to get all the information we can and try to get out of the way of nature. We can blame global warming all we want, or the jet stream pattern that is being influenced by La Nina, and even ourselves for choosing to live in a "tornado risk" area; but the fact is that we have to coexist with nature, with all of its cycles and elements. We have to look at the big picture and realize that, as hard as it is to admit, we are just a small part of this little blue marble and we don't have the power to control the natural aspect of our world.

    May 27, 2008 at 6:08 pm |
  8. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX

    Can we say, "GLOBAL WARMING"?

    May 27, 2008 at 5:49 pm |
  9. Ilona from AB

    Has there been anything comparable for trending in recorded history?
    It seems there are a lot of bad weather situations going on in the past few years.
    Artic melting, devastating earth quakes, tsunami, cyclone, hurricanes and more tornados than I can ever remember. Something is going on.......I just don't know what.

    May 27, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
  10. Sharon from Indy

    To Sam:
    End times, maybe. But check with a meteorologist to see the cycles of weather throughout history. This may not be as unusual as you may perceive.

    Also, with the advent of television and cable tv news programs like CNN, we are more educated about the storms and aware of the news breaking experience.

    As I recall, during the Palm Sunday tornadoes of the 1960's, there weren't any early warning systems, weather radar or helicopters taking video of the storm. In addition, with satellites, Dopplar radar and intensive research in meteorology, the study of tornadoes and how many are documented has changed greatly.

    Yes, I believe God has a hand in it. But I believe it is our resiliency to survive and help others that should be our goal as human beings.

    May 27, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  11. Sharon from Indy

    Jaqui and Mason!

    Great reporting!

    I am pleased that Mason was in touch with a meteorologist during the flight of what my family calls the "hog farm tornado." It was breath taking and frightening.

    As a journalist witnessing the aftermath of the Enterprise, Alabama tornado last spring, the tornado not only destroyed buildings but destroyed lives. Blue and white ribbons were place all over the town in honor of the students who died from the killer tornado which hit the town's high school. The city of Enterprise was numb and in shock.

    No matter how many early warning systems are in place when a tornado hits, in the end, use common sense and take cover. No one is in control except the tornado. It dips up and down with its violent finger to paint the landscape with mass destruction.

    May 27, 2008 at 4:47 pm |
  12. Sam

    Why all the bad weather? According to the Bible, it's a sign of the end times.

    May 27, 2008 at 4:24 pm |
  13. Tee

    I was going up from Crystal Springs, Ms to Vicksburg, Ms about a month or so ago, and it took me several hours b/c of tornado activity in the area. The traffic lights were down and several homes destroyed , and trees down. It went from Warren Co. , Vicksburg all the way to Jackson. It seemed like many tornado's in one system. It looked worse than Hurricane Katrina, which was about a Cat 2 when it hit Central Mississippi. The lights were still out at Eagle Lake , plus the river was rising and had to ride the levee to get there. As far as I know, there were no deaths.

    The bad weather seems to be moving north. I'm glad b/c that was one scary experience. Hang in there and it may keep moving. IT is very wierd that it has been hammering that same region, though.

    May 27, 2008 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Lilibeth

    Thanks, Jaqui, for sharing your expertise on these tornados. Nowadays, "extreme" and "unusual" weather isn’t "unusual" anymore. Lately, it seems to be the norm.

    Edmonds, Washington

    May 27, 2008 at 1:50 pm |