A decade ago, two powerful tornadoes went down in the history books, serving as a deadly reminder of how violent Tornado Alley can become and how quickly.
Next month will mark the 10-year anniversary of the pair of tornadoes that tore through Oklahoma. On May 20, 2013, a massive tornado rated at EF5 strength on the Enhanced Fujita Scale rocked Moore, Oklahoma, and surrounding cities, killing 24 and leaving hundreds injured. The destructive path of the twister, roughly 20 miles, caused around $2 billion in damage in 2013 USD, and the tornado remains the most recent EF5 to have touched down in the United States.
Just days later, on May 31, roughly 35 miles northwest of Moore in El Reno, Oklahoma, a tornado left eight people dead and became the widest tornado on record.
Here’s how these catastrophic monsters unfolded.
The impacts in the Moore area began southwest of Newcastle, Oklahoma, as winds picked up, causing damage to numerous homes and barn roofs. However, storm surveys would later determine that there wasn’t enough evidence to indicate that’s where the twister began its rampage. The official beginning of the tornado was in the northwestern part of Newcastle, just south of Oklahoma Highway 37, where trees began to fall rapidly.
The tornado moved northeast, crossing the highway and traveling less than a mile before producing damage consistent with EF4 strength. While crossing the nearby Canadian River, the tornado ripped apart two sections of a steel highway bridge from their concrete pillars. The tornado quickly widened while barreling through, reaching a maximum width of 1,737 meters (2417.95 feets) (2417.95 feet s) (2417.95 feet), or a little over a mile.
When it reached Moore, in the southern outskirts of Oklahoma City, the tornado maintained EF4 strength as it destroyed a small strip mall and two farms before striking Briarwood Elementary School. The destructive force consistent with an EF5 tornado decimated the school and surrounding areas, including damage to a housing complex nearby. The Westmoor neighborhood, where the housing complex was located, was the site of the tornado’s first fatalities.
More lives were lost when the tornado hit Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore. Seven children died at the school when a wall collapsed.
“To have seven children die in their school was pretty tough,” longtime Moore Emergency Director Garland Kitch told AccuWeather in 2018. “People aren’t supposed to die on my watch.”
Just south of the school, homes were swept off their foundations, even though many of the houses were constructed after a May 1999 F5 tornado rocked the area.
However, the impacts were far from over in Moore as the massive tornado charged into surrounding neighborhoods, eventually destroying a convenience store and killing three people.
The Moore Medical Center was the next target in the twister’s destructive path, with the tornado tossing parked vehicles aloft, including one that came to rest on top of the two-story building. After destroying several businesses near the medical center, the tornado continued eastward across Interstate 35, hitting more spots before it lifted. One building heavily damaged was Highland East Junior High School, where the twister destroyed the southern portion of the school and caused injuries.
Moore had suffered catastrophic tornado strikes before the 2013 storm, but the massive 2013 twister was the final straw that led to a storm shelter program in the city. In May 1999, an F5 tornado struck Moore and killed 36 people. Tornadoes also hit the city in May 2003 and May 2010, with the May 2010 tornado rated as an EF4.
In the years following the 2013 tornado, the focus in Moore turned to the reconstruction of homes and businesses, including rebuilds of both Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools. Both schools were also outfitted with storm shelters as part of the rebuild. More than 1,600 homeowners added tornado shelters to their homes in the years following the twister. The shelter additions were part of a rebate program funded by over $4 million in donations from the American Red Cross.
New building codes were adopted in Moore in 2014, requiring homes to withstand winds of up to 135 mph.
“If you can keep part of somebody’s roof from blowing off to begin with, then that keeps that piece of the house from impacting their neighbor’s house,” Kitch said. “It’s kind of a domino effect.”
Less than two weeks later, the Oklahoma City area was again the target of a volatile severe weather outbreak brought on by an unstable atmosphere of daytime heat and a stationary front over central Oklahoma. Storms became tornadic rapidly, with the first tornado of the day touching down in Kingfisher County; however, that tornado produced minimal damage.
Less than an hour later, a more powerful tornado, dubbed the “El Reno Tornado,” developed and decimated areas just south of the city. Damaging numerous homes and businesses near El Reno, the tornado quickly expanded in size and wind speed while passing southwest of the El Reno Municipal Air Park.
The tornado’s expansion was rapid enough that it is now known as the widest tornado on record, with a maximum width of 2.6 miles. The speed intensification peaked at a 302-mph estimated doppler wind speed, similar to the wind speed record held by the May 1999 Moore tornado.
Initially also rated as an EF5-strength tornado by the National Weather Service, the El Reno tornado was later downgraded to an EF3 tornado due to a lack of visual damage. However, the human toll was still immense, as the tornado killed eight people, all of whom were in vehicles. Three storm chasers, Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young, were killed east of U.S. Highway 81.
“He’s mostly going to be remembered as somebody who tried to help save lives,” Jim Samaras told Reuters of his brother Tim. “He died doing what he loved and literally put his life on the line to save others.”
AccuWeather Storm Chaser and Meteorologist Tony Laubach knew the three well and chased with them often. “I was exceptionally tight with all three of them,” he said, adding that the emblem from the car they drove that fateful day hangs on a wall in his house to memorialize his lost friends.
“It still doesn’t make sense … it doesn’t seem fair,” Laubach said. “They were doing research. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their legacy just isn’t very well honored. These guys were three of the most experienced chasers in the field.”
Three more people died near the highway while attempting to escape the tornado. Two people were also reportedly killed along Interstate 40 while waiting for the storm to pass.
In all, approximately 300 storm chaser groups observed the El Reno tornado. Findings eventually ended up on a website for the El Reno Survey Project, consolidating visual material collected by storm chasers into a database for storm researchers.
Laubach was parked in a driveway at a house outside of El Reno as he chased the monster tornado.
“Once I couldn’t see what I was looking at – it got wrapped in rain – I took off,” Laubach recalled. The house he was parked in front of was destroyed about 45 seconds later.
“I had no clue the danger I was in. I had a clock in my head that said, ‘Time’s up. I’m outta here,'” Laubach said. He reflected that he was likely within the wider circulation of the tornado. Still, there were smaller vortices that Laubach described as looking like “full-fledge cone tornadoes rotating around the main circulation.”
He described his story as “the most uninteresting harrowing story you will hear,” due to the lack of visible debris flying around his vehicle or nearby. But Laubach said he just knew he had to flee the area where he was parked. Laubach later connected with the couple who lived in the destroyed home. They contacted him after seeing his storm footage on YouTube and explained that he had taken the last footage of their home before it was demolished. He remains in touch with the homeowners to this day.
Many lessons were learned from the destructive storm, yet the tornado serves as a reminder that Mother Nature can always spin up exceptions.
“We study tornadoes for years and years and years,” Laubach said. “And just when you think you know how it works, nature spits out something like El Reno, and you go back to the drawing board.”
The deadly 2013 tornado was not the first of its kind in El Reno. The city was hit by an EF5 tornado in 2011, resulting in 11 deaths and 293 injuries. In 2019, an EF3 tornado rocked the city again, causing two fatalities and 29 injuries.
Produced in association with AccuWeather