May 3, 1999, twisters left behind lessons

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The tornadoes that rumbled through central Oklahoma four years ago left a path strewn with splinters of furniture, twisted toys and refrigerators blown out of kitchens. <br><br>The

Friday, May 2nd 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The tornadoes that rumbled through central Oklahoma four years ago left a path strewn with splinters of furniture, twisted toys and refrigerators blown out of kitchens.

The May 3, 1999, tornadoes, which killed 44 people and flattened thousands of homes, also left behind some lessons.

The first is that residents living in Tornado Alley _ and in a state where the average number of twisters per year is 54 _ should have a plan to ride out the storm, said Chuck Dowell, a meteorologist and University of Oklahoma researcher. He suggests people run drills and teach their children what to do if they're home alone.

The storm also taught Oklahoma that early warning is key.

Meteorologists say homes and businesses should have weather radios that screech out warnings when severe weather looms. As the May 3 twister headed toward Oklahoma City, National Weather Service meteorologists were broadcasting a ``tornado emergency'' _ the first time they used the attention-grabber, kicking the alarm level above a typical ``tornado warning.''

Another lesson? Don't seek shelter under an overpass. Three people were killed and several more were maimed by debris while hiding under overpasses when the half-mile-wide twister tore through the metro area.

Many weather experts blame a 1991 video for creating the myth that crawling into the crack of an overpass is a good idea. The gripping video of a Kansas television crew hiding from a twister was shown repeatedly in living rooms across the country.

Dowell kept hoping there was some way to turn it off.

Before that video, he said, people drove their cars under overpasses to protect them from hail. Afterward, they started getting out of their vehicles during twisters and walking to higher ground _ the opposite direction of safety _ so they could put concrete above their head.

``We heard one example where someone left their home to go to an overpass,'' Dowell said.

An overpass won't protect people from bricks, trees and scraps of metal sailing through the air like missiles, said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Norman. Several people who showed up at emergency rooms May 3 had been cut up by gravel and wood.

Many people don't worry enough about flying debris because they think their main concern is being snatched into the sky, Smith said.

``A lot of people think a tornado is like a vacuum cleaner hose traveling across the plains sucking things up,'' he said.

The best thing to do during a twister is stay home, or go to a designated nearby shelter, Smith said. People driving down a highway should look for a convenience store to hole up in, he said.

One of the worst places to ride out the storm is in a vehicle _ no matter if it's a tiny sedan or an 18-wheeler.

``That makes a pretty good target, even for a weak tornado,'' Smith said. Milder tornadoes can roll over vehicles, and the strongest twisters can carry them airborne.

On May 3, when wind speeds topped 300 mph, cars at a Midwest City dealership were tossed across Interstate 35 into a hotel, Smith said. People have been killed by automobiles that rolled on top of them as they lay in ditches.

The main May 3, 1999, tornado was an F-5 _ the most intense category recorded _ and ripped across a quarter of the state, starting near Chickasha. It cut through Bridge Creek, hit Moore, crossed southwestern Oklahoma City and roared into the suburbs of Midwest City and Del City.

About 10 people, many of them mobile home residents, were killed in Bridge Creek, where the twister rolled through with such force that it pulled up the grass.

A separate tornado that night flattened much of Mulhall, about 40 miles north of Oklahoma City.

Storms that afternoon and evening spawned 60 tornadoes.

In Midwest City, 95 percent of the homes destroyed that day have been rebuilt. There's a new office building where an apartment complex blew away and a vacant lot where a motel once stood, said City Manager Steve Eddy.

Eddy and others attending a city council meeting that evening hid in a bathroom until they thought it safe to peer outside.

``You couldn't see a tornado,'' he said. ``All you could see was just a big black wall.''

After a quiet 2002, when Oklahoma had a near record low of 18 weak tornadoes, the 2003 tornado season is off to a busy start. The state already has had almost as many twisters this year than all of last year, and May _ typically the most active storm month _ is just beginning.

Some worry central Oklahomans could get complacent, thinking the big one already has struck.

``Just because that happened in 1999 it doesn't mean we crossed it off,'' Smith said. ``It will happen again. It's just a matter of when.''

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