□ The most catastrophic tornado in recent Oklahoma history touched down in the midst of a large scale severe weather outbreak on May 20th, 2013. The tornado devastated southern sections of Moore, a large suburb to the southwest of Oklahoma City. Moore was the focus of international media following a similar F5 tornado that swept through neighborhoods only one mile to the north in May of 1999.
The tornado touched down at 2:55pm near the town of Bridge Creek, the same community that was nearly wiped off the map following the 1999 Moore tornado. Video of the tornado suggests it initially appeared as a large “stovepipe” before entering a period of rapid intensification, at which point it expanded and became partially shrouded in a column of rain. The swirling mass reached high-end EF4 intensity as it thundered through rural areas east of the Canadian River. Several large homes on SW 155th Street were swept completely away and grass was scoured from the ground as the tornado approached peak intensity just west of Moore. The Wallace Horse Park on Western Avenue was impacted directly by the tornado, killing all but one of the horses being held at the facility (“Oklahoma Officials…”, 2013). The bodies of several horses were recovered a quarter mile away near Sylena Way. Trees along Western Avenue were stripped of bark and branches and left pointing towards the east. The tornado reached the edge of Moore at approximately 3:15pm. Witnesses described the tornado as a “black wall” surrounded by a continuous rain of debris.
The tornado entered Moore near the intersection of 149th and Western Avenue, where hundreds of large one and two-story brick homes were obliterated. Briarwood Elementary School was impacted directly by the tornado at EF5 intensity, resulting in the near complete destruction of the school’s classroom buildings and gym. The tornado roared eastward towards Santa Fe Avenue, where at least one fatality occurred in the destruction of a two-story home. After roaring over Penn Lane, the tornado passed directly over Plaza Towers Elementary School at probable EF5 intensity. The large, brick school was nearly leveled while more than 70 students and teachers huddled in the bathrooms. Seven students were crushed to death as the building collapsed – initial reports that the students “drowned” in a puddle or swimming pool were erroneous (Kelly, 2013). Homes just south of the school on SW 14th Street were swept completely away and grass in a nearby field was scoured from the ground. One survivor in the area said the tornado shook the ground like an earthquake and was “louder than anything he had ever heard before” (Lawrence, 2013). While the survey analysis is ongoing, aerial imagery suggests that some of the most intense damage in Moore likely occurred in the vicinity of Plaza Towers Elementary.
As the tornado continued on, it curved to the north and momentarily paused just west of Telephone Road. Four people, including a mother and her infant son, were killed after taking shelter in a walk-in freezer at a 7-Eleven convenience store on the northern margin of the damage swath (a similar tragedy occurred at a Pizza Hut in Joplin, Missouri, following an EF5 tornado in 2011). On SW 6th Street, a row of well-built homes was obliterated in EF5 fashion. Across the street, the massive tornado engulfed the Moore Medical Center. The complex was severely damaged and vehicles in the parking lot were mangled beyond recognition and piled against the building’s remaining walls. Due to extensive warning and the strong construction of the building, no fatalities occurred at the medical center. A large movie theater that had been directly in the storm’s path suffered only modest damage as the tornado’s inner core made a brief curve to the north.
Just east of the Moore Medical Center, the tornado crossed the I-35. More than a dozen abandoned vehicles were swept off the freeway, some of which were left in a tangled mass atop the freeway divider. The tornado began to reorganize in this area and the damage path briefly widened and became more erratic in nature. Video footage and aerial imagery indicate that a narrow core of EF4 winds developed as the tornado’s path made a slight turn to the east. Homes within a streak less than 50 yards wide were obliterated as the tornado roared through subdivisions just south of 4th street.
The 2013 Moore tornado caused more fatalities in Cleveland County than the 1999 Bridge Creek tornado, which killed 11 in Moore and adjacent areas. Due to the severity of the damage, the 2013 tornado was upgraded to an EF5 less than 30 hours after impacting Moore.
In terms of damage intensity, the 2013 Moore tornado was comparable to the 1999 Bridge Creek tornado. Both tornadoes left multiple instances EF5 damage in the city, but the 1999 tornado reached an even greater level of intensity in rural areas to the southwest. Mobile doppler radar was not present to analyze the 2013 tornado but it is undoubtable that velocities in excess of 250mph would have been recorded during the storm’s passage through Moore.