Historic Tornado Series: Moore Oklahoma Tornado May 3rd, 1999

May 3rd 1999…mention this date to any resident of Oklahoma and you are sure to get a look of sorrow and fear. Tornadoes in Oklahoma in the spring are not an unusual thing. Natives of Oklahoma have become accustomed to the annual ritual of tornado sirens, and most understand that they live in the heart of tornado alley. The Bridge Creek Moore Oklahoma tornado was not a typical tornado. This tornado was a monster of epic proportions. This beast packing winds of 300+ miles an hour caused destruction and death no one will ever forget.

The Moore Oklahoma tornado May 3rd 1999 Shot by Dean S, Mike L, Scott C from http://www.atmospheric-violence.com/chases/1999/may3.html

Moore Oklahoma Tornado

Tornadoes can appear suddenly or be tracked as funnels by a storm chaser for miles before they touch down or dissipate. The EF scale (Enhanced Fujita Scale) for judging the intensity of the storm ranges from 0 to 5 with wind speeds of 110 miles per hour up to more than 300 mph. An EF 0 will damage trees, small structures (sheds, playground equipment), and take shingles off the roof. An EF5 is capable of leveling buildings to the foundation and damaging large skyscrapers. The Bridge Creek-Moore Oklahoma tornado of May 3, 1999 was an EF 5.

Moore Oklahoma Tornado

The deadly tornado started its path near the community of Amber, Oklahoma and headed northeast, parallel to Interstate 44, just after another tornado had passed over the airport in Chickasha. First reported by storm chasing teams as having touched down in Grady County at 6:23 p.m., the tornado intensified almost immediately from an EF 4 to an EF 5 system. The tornado then crossed the Canadian River, passing into far southern Oklahoma City. As it passed over Bridge Creek, around 6:54 pm the D.O.W. (Doppler On Wheels) headed by storm chaser Josh Wurman detected winds of 301 mph inside the tornado at a height of 32m. These winds, however, occurred above the ground, and winds at the surface may not have been quite this intense. It wavered between EF 2 and EF 5 as it entered Cleveland County, but it hit its highest speed again as it ran through and destroyed the city of Moore. The cell dissipated at 7:49 pm, outside of Midwest City, after crossing Oklahoma County and battering the southern part of Oklahoma City.

The death toll from this monster tornado would likely have been higher if people had not had advance warning. Three local television stations in Oklahoma City: KFOR-TV (channel 4), KOCO-TV (channel 5) and KWTV (channel 9) provided life saving coverage of the Oklahoma tornado outbreak. Tornado warnings were issued well in advance of the tornado’s arrival. The three stations’ chief meteorologists Mike Morgan, Rick Mitchell and Gary England received commendations from then-governor Frank Keating for their coverage of the outbreak.

Moore Oklahoma Tornado

This tornado covered a 38 mile area in around an hour and twenty-five minutes. It destroyed several towns on the outskirts of Oklahoma City killing 38 people, injuring close to 600 people, doing a billion dollars worth of damage, and destroying or damaging over 8000 homes. A “tornado emergency” was issued for the Bridge Creek/Moore tornado, marking the first time this level of warning had ever been used. A “tornado emergency” is used when a violent tornado is about to impact a densely-populated area.

As disastrous as the Bridge Creek/Moore tornado was, it was only part of a much larger system that spawned over 140 tornadoes. These tornadoes were spread over a five state area and covered a good chunk of tornado alley. Stroud Oklahoma was hit by an F-3 tornado that destroyed the Tanger Outlet Mall, the local hospital and the Sigma Trucking terminal. While there were no fatalities in Stroud, the economic impact of the tornado was devastating. Mulhall Oklahoma was also hit by an F-4 tornado toppling the city’s water tower and destroying most of the town. The Mulhall tornado was a wedge tornado, at times exceeding a width of one mile. Some storm chasers believe it may have been as violent, or more violent than the F-5 Moore/Bridge Creek tornado. ABC affiliate KTUL-TV in Tulsa located on Lookout Mountain was nearly hit by one of the last tornadoes of the outbreak. The outbreak claimed the lives of 6 people in Haysville and Wichita Kansas, 1 person in Texas and 4 people in Tennessee.

Moore Oklahoma Tornado

May 3rd was filled with death and destruction, but one reported miracle took place at Westmoore High School, outside of Eastlake Estates. There was a ceremony going on when the Bridge Creek/ Moore tornado hit, but the students had enough time to find shelter in the building. Incredibly, while the structure itself was severely damaged and cars were destroyed, not a single person in the building was even injured.Unfortunately, some individuals tried to take refuge from the tornadoes under highway overpass and this decision ended up costing 3 people their lives. The Bridge Creek-Moore Oklahoma tornado hit 2 overpasses along I-44, while another struck an overpass north of Oklahoma City. It is a common misconception is that it that it is safe to hide under an overpass during a tornado, but this is not true. Never take refuge under an overpass. The safer alternative is to lie in the lowest piece of land available such as a ditch.

Moore Oklahoma Tornado

Photo Credit Chuck Doswell

On May 4th, eleven counties were declared disasters. The Red Cross housed 1600 people in ten shelters that were opened overnight. FEMA sent several post-disaster teams, the US Dept. of Defense sent the 249th Engineering Battalion, and the Corps of Engineers were placed on standby. By the 6th, there were phone banks and donation centers functioning, and the Dept. of Health and Human Services had medical teams in attendance. Feeding stations were set up. Search and rescue continued through the 7th trying to find the thirteen who were still missing. By the 9th FEMA had approved about $180,000 for housing assistance. On May 12th seven teams were sent to aid in debris removal and people began to search for any belongings that survived the dreadful Bridge Creek-Moore Oklahoma Tornado of May 3, 1999. An outreach program was set up to help the victims deal with the stress of the trauma. People who were rebuilding were encouraged to add storm shelters on their property.

Moore Oklahoma Tornado
Photo taken by NOAA

The Bridge Creek/Moore Oklahoma tornado will never be forgotten. Those who survived this tragic day are thankful and will tell the story with a heavy heart for those that did not survive.

Zach Roberts

Zach Roberts

Owner/Storm Chaser/Photographer at Mr Twister
Hello and welcome my fellow photography and weather enthusiasts! I hope you enjoy my website and my photography. Nothing else in the world compares to seeing the beauty of mother nature in person, and I truly enjoying sharing my passion with you.
Zach Roberts

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