The Big One

My Account of the Tornado Chase May 3rd, 1999

Central Oklahoma

John Ensworth


We have many days that look good for tornado formation days in advance. This day didn't look all that special a few days earlier. It looked like one of many possible days that one could chase if they had the time. On that morning- things didn't look like they would come together exactly right to bring about a good chase.

The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma has the responsibility for issuing a forecast for what the chances of severe convection (thunderstorms) are. There are three levels of severe weather chances, slight risk, moderate risk, high risk. On Sunday, the SPC forecasted a slight risk for much of Oklahoma. Monday morning they upped it to a moderate risk- then at 3pm or so, they suddenly changed the moderate risk covering most of the state to a high risk. I was at work and was watching all the parameters come together. It suddenly looked very ripe to explode- then the first storms formed in the southwest part of the state. I gathered up some co-workers and we hit the road about 5:30pm. The first tornado (from the same storm that eventually became owner of THE tornado) touched down to the southwest of Chickasha, OK.

We drove out to the west of town and listened to the television and radio. Most stations began to cover the weather continuously at this point. Just outside of Chickasha (to the east) we saw the tornado to the north of town (the first few pictures). We jetted up after it staying on the south or west side (since it was going northeast) as we drove. Pretty soon we were in a long line of storm chasers- some passing, some content to follow the pack. The roads took us near to it and allowed it to move away and back again. Near Newcastle Oklahoma, the tornado really began to get large. We at this point were within a 1/2 mile or so from the edge of the funnel (just over a hill). We had debris (paper, shingles, grass, dirt) falling out of the sky on our car. Most exciting.

Then we followed the pack onto a dirt road (my rule is don't take dirt roads; dirt + rain = mud = getting stuck, sliding into ditches, etc.). Around and up and down and through trees we drove. We crossed I-44 and got the best pictures of the tornado yet just before it moved into Moore Oklahoma. At this point it was one of the strongest tornadoes on record with wind speeds possibly as high as 318 mph.

We crossed the damage path a couple of times on minor county roads and saw damaged homes and such. We drove over downed power lines for a while each time. Then we came upon the path of maximum damage in western Moore.

The first thing I noticed is that everything was yellow. There was a lot of yellow. The trees had been stripped of branches and the branches and trunks striped of bark. The tree trunks themselves were all sheared off at 3-4 feet above the ground. The tree wood was yellow. There were yellow two-by-fours and building pieces scattered everywhere. In the center of the tornadoes path, there were no recognizable homes or anything left. Power lines and poles were down all over the place and there was a stripped dead chicken and other birds on the road.

The road was blocked by power lines that were down but still under some tension; suspended about a foot off the ground. Some cars were making it over them- so I tried to drive over them in the big Lincoln. As soon as the wheels were over the wires, they popped up into my engine and got caught. The car came to a stop and I was dragging downed power poles. I wiggled around backing up, cars were piling up behind me (other chasers), trying to get off the wires. I finally did and succeeded in crossing the wires by driving at an angle. We passed crushed and stripped homes and debris. We had had enough. The tornado was still cranking on through Moore and into Del City and northward. We hopped on the now deserted I-35 (since the tornado had just swept across I-35 a few miles north and had stopped all traffic and killed more people) and zipped home.

I spent a mostly sleepless night watching the news and getting internet data (when you could get a phone line). Cable TV was out, we had to wait up to two minutes for a dial tone to appear, even a few radio stations were out and the power flickered and browned out now and then. We were 5 miles south of the destruction path where real chaos was happening. Two more lines of thunderstorms came through that night- then a new batch formed in the morning. We were in for possible tornadoes all through the night and up until 11am the next morning when the dry air (dry line) came through.

We have had 41 people reported dead with 10,500 homes damaged or destroyed with 2,000 completely reduced to nothing. It was only because of the excellent news coverage and many well trained spotters that so few lives were lost. The rest of the credit goes to the high level of weather savvy nature of the Oklahoma population. They knew what to do (get inside storm shelters, storm cellars, small interior closets or small interior bathrooms) to survive.

The clean up will take months. The rebuilding will take years. The destruction is really hard to believe. There are some good stories on the tornado at and (do a search). There were around 75 tornadoes in the Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas region from the storm. Another tornado as big or bigger than ours formed later to the north west of Oklahoma City and moved off to the northeast and obliterated a town called Mulhall. Any of those other tornadoes would have made national news- but this monster that struck OKC was not only big, but it hit a well populated area. Cities are no safer than anywhere else when it comes to tornadoes (see Wichita Falls, Dallas, Kansas City, Xenia Ohio). It is just a matter of time and statistics (cities cover a small percentage of total land in the Great Plains). And we are no safer today now that has happened than before- another one could hit the city or that very path this year or not again for 50 years. We will just have to see.

For now, every thunderstorm now sets everyone on edge. There are a lot of people needing food, shelter and help getting started again.

As for chasing: My chasing experience went from anticipation at the start of the chase, to elation at finding the tornado, to awe at the power and size of the thing to horror at the realization that it was moving toward OKC strengthening as it went to agony at the sight of the devastation it actually caused.

Am I tired of chasing? I'm writing this account on a lap top coming back from the Texas Panhandle where the dry line has again set up and two tornadoes touched down near Lubbock (I went with my roommate Jason and friend Eric to Amarillo- we saw a steak for dinner). It's the next Sunday. I guess not.

The more we understand these storms the better we can predict them and the better we can warn people in their path to get to safety. It's a good hobby.

Don't forget to go see the pictures (when I get them posted).