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The National Severe Storms Laboratory sat in a front-row seat during a deadly tornado


Scott Cooper May 27th, 2010

It's one thing for a weather center to be able to track and analyze nearby tornadic activity. It is quite another for that center to be in a tornado.The National Severe Storms Laboratory in south Norm...

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It's one thing for a weather center to be able to track and analyze nearby tornadic activity. It is quite another for that center to be in a tornado.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory in south Norman was built and designed for several purposes related to intense weather conditions, such as those that produce tornadoes. Located on state Highway 9 just south and east of the University of Oklahoma campus, the center has a pristine viewpoint for highly active weather.

On May 10, several OU meteorology students and scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were perched on the observation deck, watching to the north for a tornado trekking through Moore.

"We're watching these tornadoes on radar and said, 'We might be able to watch those upstairs,'" said Kevin Kelleher, deputy director of NOAA and the laboratory. "So we come up and we are staring out the windows looking at the Moore tornado. This one lady is looking out the wrong window and says, 'What is that? That's cool.' I walked over and didn't see anything, and she said, 'Look straight up,' and I literally saw the rotation coming down on the building. And I said, 'Tornado,' and we evacuated."

Yes, even those who live to study tornadoes know not to meddle with them and get the hell out of Dodge.

"We were in the heart of the funnel as it was coming down," Kelleher said. "You don't mess with that."

He believes the south-positioned storm cloud mixed up with the inflow from the north storm and exploded over the weather center.

Kevin Kloesel, associate dean of the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, was with some of his students in the observation deck at the time.

"What caught me was the flag" at Lloyd Noble Center, Kloesel said. "It was like starched into the storm. We see that in tornadic storms. You have a very strong inflow toward the storm. That flag tracked that north storm as it was going from west to east. As the storm was getting behind the dormitories in the north, that flag turned (and) pointed toward the west, which is not what you would expect with a storm going by. This was 180 degrees opposite of what you would expect. That was the first inkling that something (was) going on to our west, because that flag would not have done what it did."

The tornado that touched down on Highway 9 at the center did massive damage as it moved to the east. The town of Little Axe endured a great deal of the destruction, with several buildings and the school nearly getting leveled. The south Cleveland County storm killed one person.

For the researchers and weather geeks at the lab, the tornado could not have landed in a better place.

"The facility we are sitting in is for that purpose," Kloesel said. "You can look outside and experience what's going on from the standpoint of clouds. We've got the big-screen televisions that allow us to bring radar and satellite up here. This facility was designed for a multisensory perspective of the atmosphere for our students. If it was going to be outside our window, we have the arsenal to study it in great detail."

Both Kelleher and Kloesel said the data gathered from that tornado will provide some of the best information they have studied, and will be analyzed.

"The data that I have seen so far, I don't think I have ever seen a more amazing radar image than that," Kelleher said.

"This is like a birth certificate with the fingerprints and the footprints and things like that," Kloesel said. "One of the elusive pieces of our science is how tornadoes form in the first place. Why does this storm produce a tornado and the other one doesn't, and how do they interact? It's immense data that we will have."

photo above Kevin Kelleher (left), deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Kevin Kloesel, associate dean of the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, stand on the National Severe Storms Laboratory's observation deck. photo/Scott Cooper

photo below
A radar reading of the storm.
 
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