Moore and Oklahoma City's Terrible Tornado History, Particularly Since 1999

Jonathan Erdman
Published: May 20, 2019

The Oklahoma City metro area, and its southern suburb of Moore, have a long, notorious history of destructive, deadly tornadoes, one that has come to the forefront several times over the past 20 years.

From 1890-2016, 162 tornadoes were documented in the Oklahoma City metro area, an average of just over one each year, according to a compilation from the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Norman, Oklahoma, NOAA's Storm Prediction Center and historical tornado guru, Tom Grazulis.

Since weak tornadoes were not always documented prior to 1950, this number is likely well underestimated, according to NWS.  

Approximate tornado tracks through Moore, Oklahoma, from 1999 through 2015.
(Data: NOAA)

The last 20 years have been particularly awful.

Beginning with the May 3, 1999, outbreak, there have been 45 tornadoes in the Oklahoma City metro area, an average of two to three tornadoes each year.

Moore, Oklahoma, about 8 miles south-southeast of downtown Oklahoma City, has been hit by five separate tornadoes, four of those rated F/EF4 or 5, from 1999 through 2015.

Another EF3 tornado struck just north of Moore in May 2015, north of Interstate 240 in Valley Brook.

Here is a rundown of the days with at least one F/EF3 or stronger tornado in the Oklahoma City metro area since 1999.

May 3, 1999

View of the F5 tornado near Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, on May 3, 1999.
(Erin Maxwell/NWS-Norman, Oklahoma)

May 3, 1999, is forever burned into the memory of Oklahomans due to one of the most infamous tornadoes in U.S. history.

An F5 tornado tore through the cities of Bridge Creek, Newcastle, Moore and parts of the south side of Oklahoma City.

It claimed 36 lives, destroyed 1,800 homes and damaged another 2,500, according to the National Weather Service. 

The Doppler on Wheels research radar measured a wind speed of 301 mph about 100 feet above the ground in that tornado, which was up to three-quarters of a mile wide.

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This single tornado, one of a Sooner State record 63 tornadoes during that May 3 outbreak, was the first F5 tornado on record to hit the Oklahoma City metro area, responsible for an estimated $1 billion damage, the state's costliest single tornado at the time. 

A flipped church van sits in the backyard of a home in Moore, Okla. on May 9, 2003.
(NWS-Norman, Oklahoma)

May 8-9, 2003:  Consecutive Days, Strong Tornadoes

This was the first time in recorded history the Oklahoma City metro area was hit by F/EF3+ or stronger tornadoes on consecutive days.

There were only two tornadoes in central Oklahoma on May 8, 2003. Unfortunately, one of those was an F4 tornado that tracked over some of the same areas heavily damaged by the more infamous May 3, 1999 tornado in Moore and the south Oklahoma City metro area.

In another testament to the collaboration between NWS forecasters, local media, and the emergency management community, no fatalities occurred with this tornado.

The following day was also exceptional in this event.

Three more tornadoes spawned in the Oklahoma City metro area the evening of May 9, 2003, including an F3 tornado tracking from south of Edmond to near Luther, Oklahoma, a path of 18 miles.  

May 19-20, 2013 became the second time in recorded history to witness F/EF3+ tornadoes on consecutive days, almost exactly ten years after it was first done.

In fact, both the 2013 and 2003 events featured two tornadoes tracking from roughly the Edmond area to near Luther, as well as a Moore-to-Norman track.  

May 10, 2010

Tornado swath map on May 10, 2010. (Credit: National Weather Service - Norman, Okla.)

This particular date doesn't necessarily have the notorious cachet of other events, however, this was the second largest outbreak in recorded state history.

A total of 56 tornadoes were observed in Oklahoma that afternoon.

Two of these tornadoes were rated EF4, and another four were rated EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. According to NWS-Norman, over a roughly two-and-a-half hour period, there was at least one tornado taking place each minute somewhere in the Sooner State.

One of those EF4 tornadoes carved through the north side of Norman and southeast side of Moore along its 24-mile-long path. Two were killed and 49 injured from this tornado.  

Amazingly, two other tornadoes also touched down in Moore that day, both rated EF1. One of those took a four-mile path in the east side of the city of Moore.

Storm-relative velocity (left) and reflectivity (right) of the Piedmont, Oklahoma, tornado at 4:52 pm CT, May 24, 2011.
(Image credit: Gibson Ridge/NWS-Norman)

May 24, 2011

One of roughly 51 tornadoes that day in the Plains, an EF4 tornado in Grady and McClain Counties thankfully weakened substantially before moving into the southwest side of the Oklahoma City metro area and brought only minor tree and power line damage, according to the National Weather Service.

Perhaps the most infamous tornado that day, however, was an EF5 tornado that levelled areas just to the northwest of the Oklahoma City metro area, including parts of El Reno, Piedmont and Guthrie, Oklahoma. 

With over 130 additional tornadoes the following two days, this May 24-26, 2011 outbreak became one of the nation's worst on record based on a combination of statistics compiled by The Weather Channel severe weather expert, Dr. Greg Forbes.

May 19-20, 2013

Cars lie around the northeast corner of Plaza Towers Elementary school after it was damaged by a tornado May 21, 2013, in Moore, Oklahoma.
(Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Destructive tornadoes on back-to-back days raked through parts of central Oklahoma in mid-late May 2013.

On the evening of May 19, an EF4 tornado tracked from Lake Thunderbird on the east side of the city of Norman to near Shawnee, Oklahoma.

Another EF3 tornado tracked from far northeast Oklahoma County into Logan and Lincoln Counties, including the towns of Carney and Luther. Before spawning that tornado, an EF1 tornado spawned in the northern suburb of Edmond.

As residents were sifting through the debris from these tornadoes the following day, a lone supercell thunderstorm spawned a massive EF5 tornado up to 1.3 miles wide through Newcastle and Moore, Oklahoma, claiming 24 lives.

Two schools were levelled and the Moore Medical Center was heavily damaged. Over 300 homes suffered EF4 or EF5 damage, according to NWS-Norman.  

Damage estimates from this single tornado on May 20 were about $2 billion.

Storm-relative velocity loop from the NWS-Norman, Oklahoma Doppler radar from 6:00 to 6:19 p.m. CDT of the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on May 31, 2013. Interstate 40 is depicted by the yellow line roughly west-to-east near the center of the images.
(Gibson Ridge/NWS-Norman, Oklahoma)

May 31, 2013

Of the 11 tornadoes in Oklahoma, Cleveland or Canadian Counties that day, an exceptionally wide, intense, multi-vortex tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma, was the headliner of the outbreak.

The El Reno tornado claimed eight lives, all in vehicles, including renowned storm chaser/researcher Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and his chase partner Carl Young. The circulation also overtook and rolled The Weather Channel's Tornado Hunt vehicle, requiring one chase team member to be hospitalized.

The University of Oklahoma's RaXPol mobile radar sampled winds of at least 295 mph in the El Reno tornado. The Doppler on Wheels mobile radar from the Center for Severe Weather Research also measured winds over 200 mph.

Initially rated an EF5 tornado based on these measurements, NOAA then downgraded the rating to EF3 in late August 2013, since the Enhanced-Fujita is a tornado damage scale, and no damage higher than EF3 was found. 

The width of the tornado was given a conservative estimate of 2.6 miles, a new official record for the widest U.S. tornado, beating the previous record of 2.5 miles near Hallam, Nebraska, on May 22, 2004.

(RECAP: One of the Widest Tornadoes

There were several vortices wrapping around the massive circulation of the El Reno tornado.

"Think of the average size of an Oklahoma tornado you'd see on a typical afternoon. Three or four of those things moving along the ground at a speed of 170 to 180 mph, crossing each other with all kinds of violent motions going on," said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. "So this is going to be studied for a long time."

Smith noted that the extreme winds associated with the subvortices affected a relatively small area compared to the tornado as a whole. None of the subvortices hit any structures, which is why mobile radar data from the University of Oklahoma were needed to assess the true strength of tornado; based on damage alone, survey crews could only find visual evidence of EF3 winds.

Amazingly, the Doppler on Wheels also detected an EF2 tornado rotating anticyclonically (winds rotating clockwise, instead of counterclockwise, as in most Northern Hemisphere tornadoes) southeast of the main El Reno tornado. 

The tornadic supercells then rolled into the Oklahoma City metro area during Friday evening rush. In a word, it was chaos. Passengers at Will Rogers World Airport were evacuated to underground tunnels. Freeways, including Interstate 35, were jammed with traffic. 

An EF1 tornado was confirmed to have tracked 10.4 miles across the southwest Oklahoma City metro, including Will Rogers World Airport. Another EF0 tornado touched down on the north side of Moore.

If that wasn't enough, training thunderstorms moving across the metro area triggered deadly flash flooding that evening. In Oklahoma County, 13 people lost their lives in the flash flood. At least 23 high water rescues were conducted.

May 6, 2015

Map of preliminary tornado reports and visible satellite during the May 6, 2015, central Plains tornado outbreak.
(NOAA/NWS/SPC)

Once again, an early May Plains tornado outbreak included the Oklahoma City metro area.

An EF3 tornado tore a two-mile swath through the city's southeast side, heavily damaging a hotel and an RV park, injuring 12.

Earlier that afternoon, in another case of 1999 deja vu, a separate EF3 tornado tore through parts of Bridge Creek, Oklahoma, damaging dozens of homes.

An EF1 tornado damaged roofs, trees, fences, and power poles on the northwest side of Norman, Oklahoma, as well.

People inside Oklahoma City's Will Rogers World Airport were told to take shelter in storm shelter tunnels twice due to the tornado threat.

About 56 tornadoes touched down in four states that day, according to The Weather Channel severe weather expert Dr. Greg Forbes. 

While the tornadoes weren't directly responsible for any fatalities, record daily rainfall for the month of May claimed the life of a woman seeking shelter from the tornado in an underground storm cellar. 

In March 1948, back-to-back tornadoes just five days apart striking Tinker Air Force Base on Oklahoma City's east side launched the concept of forecasting severe weather.


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