Local Weather Experts Tracked Tornadoes Early

Wednesday, February 6th 2008, 10:34 pm
By: News On 6

Emergency managers are still counting the cost after the deadliest tornado outbreak in decades.  The death toll has now claimed more lives than Oklahoma's devastating May 3rd, 1999 tornadoes.  Dozens of twisters spun across the South, leaving 52 people dead, hundreds injured and a path of destruction from Arkansas and Alabama to Tennessee and Kentucky. 

The News On 6's Ashli Sims reports weather experts in Tulsa tracked this storm system as early as Tuesday afternoon.  They say they knew then, it had the potential to cause mass destruction.

"The whole thing just kind of unfolded last evening as we watched it," said Steve Piltz, National Weather Service.

Piltz says he knew the storm was about to take a deadly turn when the splashes of red and green started pulsing brighter and brighter.

"You've got trouble. You've got strong rotation that maybe leading up to a tornado," said Piltz.

While Piltz was keeping an eye on the radar were barreling through Clinton, Arkansas.

"It really looked like it could be this bad; I mean you hope it's not. But it easily looked like the destruction was going to be there from the radar signatures and sure enough it turned out to be that way," said Piltz.

The storm spawned dozens of tornadoes that tore across four states, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more.

"We all ran to the bathroom and I was the last one in and as soon as I shut the door pretty much my house was like ripping apart," said tornado survivor Blake Martin.

Whole neighborhoods were smashed into matchsticks, churches gutted, shrouded in insulation and lives forever altered.

The images are reminiscent of another day that lives in infamy in Oklahoma, May 3rd, 1999.  But experts say the devastation stretching from Arkansas to Tennessee will top that storm in the record books.

"At least as far as fatalities are concerned this is the deadliest single tornado day since that day and it looks like it's going to be worse at least in the death count," said Piltz.

The final impact of the storm won't be known for days and it's hard to predict if this is a sign of more to come.

"We had tornadoes in the area back on January 7th. We had tornadoes now just outside of Oklahoma. It seems like we're leading toward an active season. But just as soon as you think that or say that, the pattern changes," said Piltz.

Piltz winter tornadoes are unusual, but not unheard of.  There have been 44 February tornadoes recorded in Oklahoma, since 1950.  That pales in comparison to May, which has seen more than a thousand in that same time period.