2013-05-31 EVENT: KS, OK, MO, IL

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May 1, 2004
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Springfield, IL
www.skip.cc
While painful to look at, it's important that we study this event so that we can better ourselves in the future. The following is a plot of storm chasers that were impacted by the May 31 El Reno tornado, resulting in damage to vehicles, injuries, or fatalities. Tornado location and size is approximated based on the preliminary damage survey. Level 2 base reflectivity may be delayed in each frame as well. Thanks to everyone who has contributed their GPS logs, and information on the event, that make this study possible. I should have a full animation of the event available on YouTube in the coming days.

 
May 1, 2004
3,392
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Springfield, IL
www.skip.cc
Here's the animation I've been working on: A detailed look at the track of the El Reno EF5 and its tragic impacts on several groups of chasers including Tim and Paul Samaras, Carl Young, Mike Bettes and crew, Brandon Sullivan, Brett Wright, and Dan Robinson. This analysis also includes time lapsed footage of the storm and tornado, synchronized to radar and GPS positions. Many thanks to everyone who contributed their GPS logs, time stamped photos, accounts of where Tim, Paul, and Carl were, and annotated maps. This video wouldn't have been possible without that information:

Watch video >
 
May 25, 2012
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Albuquerque, NM
www.wxlog.com
Impeccable job Skip. Incredibly valuable analysis. I have questions about some of the GPS fixes for other chasers. I realize SN positions might be very highly interpolated, but there are a good number of green dots that appear to have sustained very direct hits. Are there any actual fixes (i.e. non-interpolated positions) that place any of these green dots within the tentatively defined circulation? I would be very curious to know particulars associated with these additional encounters.

List of possibly interesting encounters (time stamp indicates time in Skip's video):
5:47 - Chaser moving south at corner of S Fort Reno and Reuter Rd.
6:00 - Chaser drifting east along E1070 Reno Rd.
6:11 - Two chasers, one heading south on N2820 (S Country Club) and one heading east on what appears to be a road just north of 15 St SW.
6:17 - The chaser blasting east along E1070 nearing 81 is probably erroneous, based on speed, but it'd be great to have more fidelity on this one.
6:24 and 6:30 - Props to the 2 chasers who peeled off north at the last moment on the outskirts of the circulation. I'd be interested to know what visual cues lead to those decisions (since it forced them into the supercell core).
 
This is incredibly useful as a study in chaser/spotter behaviors and the dangers of high-end HP storms. Great job in presentation also.

The different loops really highlight the inexplicable behavior of TWC. I interpret it as an example of novice chasers confused by a rain-wrapped tornado, but even then I can't understand why they continued south when the storm was headed east and about to cross their escape route.
 

LS Wiley

Thanks Skip!!! Although I do much more reading than writing here, I appreciate your work helping me understand this event.
 
May 1, 2004
3,392
630
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Springfield, IL
www.skip.cc
Are there any actual fixes (i.e. non-interpolated positions) that place any of these green dots within the tentatively defined circulation? I would be very curious to know particulars associated with these additional encounters.
Absolutely. It would be difficult for me to show all the non-interpolated positions, but I was able to skim through them in the viewer quickly. There are several chasers that updated their position within the circle of the parent circulation, some very close to the center. I don't recognize many of the names, and am not going to try and track them down due to privacy concerns since the positions are coming from the Spotter Network data. We can only guess if they were experiencing significant tornadic winds at the time. Keep in mind that circle is a rough approximation, and that there were lots of subvortices dancing around within it. Like being in the bear's cage on other violent tornado producing supercells, it is definitely possible to be within the broader, parent circulation and not experience damaging, or significantly tornadic winds, provided you're lucky enough to miss the subvortices. Or they did experience extremely powerful winds and again just got very lucky. I suspect that's what happened with many of the "green dots." I also suspect that some of the green dots did sustain damage and injuries, and we either haven't heard about it, or they are choosing to keep it to themselves.

The different loops really highlight the inexplicable behavior of TWC. I interpret it as an example of novice chasers confused by a rain-wrapped tornado, but even then I can't understand why they continued south when the storm was headed east and about to cross their escape route.
In the video I didn't want to make any faulty assumptions or judgments. I have no idea what was going through people's heads at the time (I mean this in a neutral sense, I'm sure both good and bad decisions were made), or what was happening around them that led them to choose the decisions that they did.

Some patterns of general behavior seem to be emerging though that I might take a guess at. One of them that some chasers may be suffering from is something I've been referring to myself as "go-south-itis." This is not directed at any particular individual or group, but seemed to be a trend with this event. It seems to me that many chasers have it etched into their brains that they *must* go south to escape the tornado, even if that means racing the tornado to cross its path. When you lose this race, however, you're in real trouble (to say the least). Maybe it's because these chasers are usually east or south of the tornado and found themselves north of it in this situation (since it was initially a SE mover), and their escape routes almost always lead to the south. Maybe it's because they can see the clear air just a couple miles to the south and it looks so much more inviting than the green core to the north, despite the tornado between them and that clear air. Maybe they feel that they're guaranteed to take damage heading north into the core, whereas they feel they've got a decent shot at the gamble of racing the tornado instead. This was an extremely complex, and exceptional storm and situation, however. Many who bailed south and got hit, would have also been hit had they gone north, they just didn't have time at that point to clear the 2.6 mile wide circulation.

I think we might need to stress to chasers, newer ones especially, that you should never race the tornado, your escape route should never cross a tornado's path, and your escape route should take you directly away from the tornado. Another thing to keep in mind is that, even if you do win the race by heading south, you've still got to contend with the RFD after that. The RFD is often significantly more severe than the FFD. Head north, if you're north of the tornado and need to escape. So few people took 81 north when they should have. Or move to stay ahead of the tornado until you have time to take a north or south escape route. El Reno was moving less than 40 mph. If your road isn't a mud slick, and you're not trapped in the bear's cage, you should be able to put ground between yourself and the tornado by moving ahead of the tornado. Every incident that I've looked at, the chaser was either attempting to escape by crossing the tornado's path, or had no option to stay ahead of the tornado and had to cross it's path.
 
Jan 14, 2011
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St. Louis
stormhighway.com
143e88eb32c3b568580e0bc5283dfc85.jpg


This is video from my front-facing and later rear-facing dash camera while escaping the May 31, 2013 EF5 El Reno, Oklahoma tornado in my Toyota Yaris on Reuter Road between 6:16PM and 6:30PM CDT. CDT time shown on-screen is based on GPS time, synced with US official time and accurate to the second. Road intersections are shown as the vehicle encounters them.

The dash cameras are both 1080i HD, and can be viewed in the full resolution in the Youtube player.

The audio contains what I am attempting to narrate for the main video camera. My voice transcription is as follows:

6:17:29 "I want to find an east road here, I'm getting a little to close. I need to start looking for the east (road) option". The tornado was moving east at this point. I didn't want to go farther south and risk not being able to reach the next east road option to the south after Reuter Road.

6:17:45 "Power flashes". The tornado is damaging the power lines up ahead and causing arcing. The streetlight goes out.

6:18:18 "New wall cloud". Another area of circulation was organizing to the north.

6:18:28 "The wedge is rain wrapped". Referring to the main wedge tornado about a mile to the south.

6:18:57 "I don't like getting in front of tornadoes I can't see, especially huge wedges". Referring to why I don't want to go farther south than Reuter Road.

6:19:56 "What is that? I don't like the looks of that" I am surprised to see what looks like the tornado to the south rapidly approaching the road. I had expected it to be well south of me and to the west.

6:20:18 "It looks like the tornado." I now realize what is happening.

6:21:03 "It's just off to the side of the road". Referring to the tornado, which I can see is now right on me.

6:21:53 "Come on, car!" The car is not maintaining speed in the strong headwinds, due to the traction control reducing power to the wheels as they slip on the gravel.

6:22:13 "The car won't go!"

6:23:12 "I've got to get out of whatever this is" I'm still in disbelief the tornado reached Reuter Road that fast. I was wondering if it was a second tornado that developed to the north of the wedge.

6:23:24 "The car just isn't going"

6:23:33 "Come on! Traction control OFF!" The entire time, I have been repeatedly hitting the traction control's manual override button to turn it off, but it is not working.

6:24:03 I step out of the car and get my first look back at what I had just escaped.

6:24:22 "I just drove through that"

6:24:44 "There's debris" There are small pieces of debris falling around me.

6:24:50 "Where is it? I can't see it" From the driver's side looking north and northwest, I can't yet make out the north edge of the tornado. I was looking back to see if it was safe to stop again.

See a more detailed account of this event here:

http://stormhighway.com/may312013.shtml
 
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Apr 22, 2010
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Richmond, VA
Actually, watching it again, I don't think you would have made it if you were 30 seconds behind. I'm sorta surprised you didn't stop driving until you reached the Atlantic.
 
Dec 9, 2003
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Oklahoma
Head north, if you're north of the tornado and need to escape. So few people took 81 north when they should have. Or move to stay ahead of the tornado until you have time to take a north or south escape route. El Reno was moving less than 40 mph. If your road isn't a mud slick, and you're not trapped in the bear's cage, you should be able to put ground between yourself and the tornado by moving ahead of the tornado. Every incident that I've looked at, the chaser was either attempting to escape by crossing the tornado's path, or had no option to stay ahead of the tornado and had to cross it's path.
Or head E. Or, heck -- turn around and head back W! I'm surprised so few chasers took I40 eastward. Actually, scratch that -- I'm not that surprised. My situation was a little difference since I was in the radar truck which we typically only keep on paved roads. As such, it was a relatively easy decision to take I40 eastward from our early position (Jensen and Country Club Rd to the NE of the aiport). We knew we couldn't beat the tornado across US81, and we weren't confident in the paved vs. dirt/gravel/mud nature of any of the other east options. When I'm in my personal vehicle chasing for "hobby"/spotting purposes, I tend to avoid interstates in areas that don't have regular exits since I don't want to get caught on an interstate and waste time having to wait for an exit. In addition, since the tornado initially moved southeastward, I think I probably would have wanted to have lost a little latitude to avoid getting further into the FFD and losing the view of the tornado. It tough for me to go back and replay what I might have done if I were in a different capacity on 5/31 since it's easy to second-guess now that I know what happened.

I think one of the biggest "gotchas" with this tornado was the counterclockwise curvature to the path. Nearly all chasers started off in the "normal" location to the southeast of the updraft when it was along I40 before 6 pm. As the tornado developed and dropped southeastward, this meant that many chasers were in a progressively more north location relative to "normal" observation locations. You very nicely outlined some of the possible thoughts going through the heads of those who were in close proximity to the tornado that may have lead some to take great risk to get south. Mean right-moving supercell motion on this day, if I'm recalling the forecast hodographs and the 00z observed OUN sounding correctly, was supposed to be nearly due E or maybe even just N of due E, which I think many chasers did account for when setting up their initial observation locations.

At any rate, it seems apparent that many chasers ended up farther north / left-of-track than is typically desired. Most (unfortunately, not all) escaped eastward or southward without much harm, but there certainly were quite a few very close calls. Incidentally, I40 eastbound was clear in terms of traffic, and the nature of that route meant that we could safely get east at >65 mph and had nice observation points at exit ramps for a couple dozen miles. Visually, as well, the contrast was quite good, making for nice photo/video potential. I'm sure there are more cell-phone videos from I40 that I haven't seen from Joe Q Public that show some close calls, but it was nice to have a good view of the tornado and be on a paved, wide highway. As the tornado continued to turn farther to the left (SE to E to NE to N), the chasers who were N of the tornado and heading E, a plan that likely would have worked just fine if the tornado hadn't continued to turn left, progressively got closer and closer to the center of circulation.

As you noted, one of the biggest threats with the "go E" or "go N" option on 5/31 was getting bombed by hail and/or losing visibility of the tornado. We didn't encounter any hail during the chase. The most prominent polarimetric hail signature occurred during the early stage of the tornado -- I don't see particularly large areas of large hail in the data after the tornado crosses US81, though that certainly doesn't mean some big stones weren't in there! I do have a view of the east and northeast edge of the updraft from the edge of the udpraft, a location where I'd normally expect to be the "danger zone" for large hail. I'm sure many of us have been in a similar situation (i.e. *look up*, see visual vault region, think "Uh oh")...

I'm confident, too, that there was a general feeling that "it" wouldn't happen. Anyone who has chased for more than a few years has likely had a couple of "close calls". In the entirety of the chasing world, however, those close calls have been relatively inconsequential; there hadn't yet been much in the way of catastrophic consequences from the myriad of close calls or tornado intercepts over the years. The El Reno tornado was in a different league, however.
 
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Dec 20, 2006
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I sent Skip my data today, so hopefully he can include it in a future video update. We got hit/tossed ~100 yards by the tornado when we were approximately 0.6 miles east of 81 on Reno Road.

I remember looking at the soundings for the day and seeing storm motion just N of E, but I also knew that the storms would be stronger than what the storm motion estimates would account for and that given the SE movement of storms the previous day I shouldn't be surprised if they moved SE this day either. We were directly S of the circulation when it first formed and could visibly see it moving E, everything is going according to plan. We moved positions E along Reno Road to essentially try to stay ahead of and south of it. I was figuring it would eventually move SE and wanted to get to 81 so that I could go S all the way across the river instead of being trapped between the river and the tornado. This was sort of my plan for the chase when I saw the storm develop. We headed E on Reno Road a ways before stopping again to observe the tornado, at this point we had low contrast to the tornado and when we stopped I couldn't tell exactly where it was. After reviewing my video from the day though I can clearly see it, and it is still N of Reno Road. We decide to continue E towards 81 with 81 S being our next option for keeping up with the storm. I'm not alarmed by the storm at all at this point. We encountered heavy slow traffic along Reno Road heading east and by the time we get to 81 it is clear that the tornado is now south of us and appears to be moving SE. Everything is going more or less according to plan even at this point. The tornado has made significant E progress on us though and is uncomfortably close. While waiting for the traffic ahead of us to clear the 81 intersection we watch TWC crew fly by, initially seeing a glimpse of TWC satellite truck and mistaking it for RaxPol I was left to wonder what they knew that I didn't. When it was our turn at 81 we proceeded E through it, it wasn't clear to us at this point that the tornado had actually made a significant left turn. We got about half a mile further down Reno Road when visibility decreased significantly and the winds made staying on the road and making forward progress difficult. We ended up stopping, realizing that the tornado was heading more north at this point but not able to get an exact fix on its path or how big it was. This wasn't really my decision, but I believe the driver and fellow passenger who conferred it to be the right one thought the tornado was just doing a small wobble closer to us and was proceeded it a generally E direction. Being unable to outrun it, letting it pass by us to the south seemed like a superior option.

We have a conservation on video when we crossed 81 about why all the cars were headed S on it, it was clear at that point that they were racing the tornados path and also pretty clear that they weren't going to make it. We picked E thinking we could continue to avoid the hail and the tornado without issue. In hindsight I think even if we had realized that the tornado was making a huge left turn and heading more N we would have gone N on 81 and E on 40. But depending on the visibility we still may have run right smack into the tornado's path.

On the hail thing, I can tell you that immediately after the tornado hit us there were hail stones in the golf ball size range. One or two may have been more towards baseball size. There weren't very many of them though, I know they fell but I can't actually remember seeing any on the ground after leaving the vehicle.
 
Oct 27, 2011
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Panama City, FL
Random question, but according to Sean Casey's IMAX page he intercepted on the 31st, but nothing has been posted since then abut the intercept? Anyone know what/where he intercepted? Just a curiosity thing as I know with the tragic events some priorities probably got shifted.
 
Apr 18, 2010
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Grand Island, NE
nnwx.us
I uploaded a timecoded version of my El Reno footage to YouTube a few days ago and forgot to post it here for anyone interested in analysis. It's going to be pretty similar to Skip's timelapse in his analysis as far as locations and times go since I was caravanning with them that day.

Watch video >
 
Plotting my location against the NWS Norman graphic shows how quickly the safety buffer disappeared when the circulation jumped to two-and-a-half miles wide (I drove east non-stop beginning at 6:10):



This is part of my revised and expanded chase log:
http://www.stormdude.com/stormchasing/2013Storm/storms136.html

Going north on Highway 81 seems like a good option now, but at the time it was clear sky a little to my east vs. an expectation of baseball size or larger hail to my north.
 

David Hoadley

Stormtrack founder
Apr 19, 2006
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Thanks, Skip, for posting the new NWS Norman tornado track. After opening their web site, I was fascinated with the time-line graphic, which showed the tornado traveling almost 5 miles in 8 minutes from US81 to I-40 --but then almost stationary for another 8 minutes within about 1/2 square mile north of the Interstate. Moreover, the damage path is still broad and extends far to the SE of I-40 but barely to the NW (similar to where it crossed Reformatory Road). I am currently re-plotting the new track/path on my El Reno map study but need to see the small but twisted track north of I-40. Currently, it is covered on that particular graphic by time-line "target" markers. Do you or anyone know how to get a copy of just the track without the markers?
 
Apr 18, 2010
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Grand Island, NE
nnwx.us
David,

I've uploaded a graphic zoomed into that area with just the track and damage contour here: http://i.imgur.com/voghvUO.jpg

Alternatively, if you use Google Earth you can grab the KML from them here: https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=...d=204038211651009837952.0004e1403e7abb6990805

It is crazy to see early in it's life it was trundling along at around 20mph, but between 6:17 and 6:20 when it crossed US 81 forward speed was around 50 mph.

I am currently re-plotting the new track/path on my El Reno map study but need to see the small but twisted track north of I-40. Currently, it is covered on that particular graphic by time-line "target" markers. Do you or anyone know how to get a copy of just the track without the markers?
 
Apr 29, 2009
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Jacksonville, IL
Here's a link to a remarkable recent paper by Josh Wurman, Karen Kosiba, Paul Robinson, and Tim Marshall that provides a very detailed (and at times painful) look at how the sub-vortices in the El Reno tornado likely impacted the Samaras and TWC teams.

http://tiny.cc/y97n3w

Entitled "Preliminary Results from the ROTATE-2013 Season," the paper also discusses data gathered by CSWR's DOWs on the Rozel, Bennington, and Viola/Wichita tornadoes from this past season. Much of it is well beyond my level of expertise, but it's a fascinating read nonetheless. I found this copy on Gabe Garfield's blog (http://gabrielgarfield.wordpress.com).
 
Dec 9, 2003
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Oklahoma
The steady stream of articles about storm chasing and the El Reno tornado continues. This one is from Outside Magazine:

http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoo...e-Luck-Ran-Out-in-El-Reno-Tornado.html?page=1
That's a pretty darn interesting article. There are errors in it (e.g., the "Severe Storms Laboratory" doesn't rate tornadoes, the NWS doesn't issue watches, etc.), but the tone of the article is quite different than that of the others I've seen recently. It's pretty honest and "raw". It's the first time I've read an article questioning the "all chasers are doing it for the science" bit.

That said, I really don't like the "big-money science" vs. "amateur thrill-seekers" angle on which a few paragraphs are spent. Sure, some scientific observations may have come from "accidents", but much of the development comes from well-funded science. For example, who does the author think have developed the radar technology to the point that we're at today? Someone may have unknowingly seen a hook echo on a radar display years ago, but the development of radar technology between then and now has come from research and experimentation from a myriad of scientists and engineers (at the Radar Operations Center, National Severe Storms Laboratory, University of Oklahoma, University of Massachusetts, etc.). How many non-scientists are doing vorticity budget analyses and examining vortex line evolution with supercells to study how the near-surface rotation within a tornado develops? The problem is that we *do* need observations, and many in severe storms research also enjoy storm chasing on their own/leisure time (certainly myself included!) outside of any "science". I mention this only because this angle in the article bothers me and because I think it's a false distinction.
 
May 1, 2004
3,392
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Springfield, IL
www.skip.cc
The National Geographic and Outside articles provide interesting tidbits about the wreck that are telling as to what might have been happening in the chase at the time. The authors of the articles may not realize or care about the implications of these details. The most interesting was in the Outside article which states Young's seat belt was still fastened even though he wasn't found in the car. It suggests that they were indeed still trying to escape in the vehicle. The detail that the seats were reclined also suggests that perhaps they tried to take shelter in the vehicle by getting below the window line, but in a wreck where the engine and three wheels are missing, perhaps that can't be inferred and the seats were pushed back due to an impact.

I am also rather disappointed in both of these articles. Both articles have sloppy technical errors. Dates are wrong, stats that are easy to look up are incorrect. The National Geographic article goes as far as featuring the Manchester F4 with Tim standing in front of it on the November cover, but then the web article claims the only F4 he's seen was Hallam.

In more than two decades of storm chasing Samaras had witnessed only a single F4 tornado—in Hallam, Nebraska, on May 22, 2004. He had yet to lay eyes on an EF5 like the one in Moore.
The writing is well crafted and it reads like an interesting story, but the fact checking is not worthy of a major news publication. I think both articles also missed the mark on interpreting the events and their meanings.

The Outside article in particular missed the big picture, focusing instead on tidbits of chaser drama. It read more like a supermarket tabloid article than the other El Reno articles we've seen recently. It focused heavily on the strife between storm chasing groups, the validity of storm chasers, and the polarized view that it's science vs yahoos. All of these are lesser facets of chasing, but are probably trumpeted just to make this mundane hobby sound more dramatic. I see they also cherry picked from 23 pages of posts in this thread to find the most dramatic quotes.

Several paragraphs were devoted to the dangers of chaser convergence, and how congestion is a growing a problem. It's out of place when the article revolves around a storm on which chaser traffic was almost a non issue and absolutely not a factor in the deaths on which the article is centered. We finally do get a mention that traffic wasn't an issue in these deaths, but it's followed by a dismissive hand wave that Mike Morgan's urging of viewers to head south was not a colossal mistake that resulted in huge traffic jams. Weekend holiday traffic doesn't result in the northbound lanes of I-44 being reversed with gridlock on this interstate, route 4, and US 81.

It would also be nice if an article, which was spurred by a chaser's death, focused more on the man's legacy and accomplishments. Instead we're given the incredibly elitist and selfish opinions of Josh Wurman who chalks up Tim's career to "putting a camera in a hardened box."

The National Geographic article is a better read in that regard, and it should be since Tim was one of their stars. I'm taken aback by the article too, however. While trying to piece together Tim's track, I was put in contact with National Geographic staff to share what we had both found. I was told that some of their sources were unreliable. Their claims could not be verified. They went further to suggest that some chasers were stealing items from the wreck site for souvenirs, while lying about their connections with Tim and Twistex in some sort of attempt to profit in fame from his death. As damning as some of these claims are, I don't know anything about them, who all was involved, or how true they are since I'm simply receiving them from a third party. I'm in no position to start acting on them. However, I see some of the same sources being cited in the National Geographic article, when they went out of their way to tell me these sources were not credible. I'm not sure what to make of that. Combined with some of the sloppy technical errors in the piece, it makes me think that a lot of people had their hands on this article who didn't understand the event or the people, or possibly that it was rushed, thrown together.

I guess I expected more from these publications, but probably got my hopes too high. These are writers and editors, not storm chasers and meteorologists. They work on a project in a short amount of time and then it's off to the next project. Errors are made and some of the deeper meanings are lost. It's unrealistic to expect more from the articles since we all have devoted much of our own time to studying and understanding this event.
 
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Jeff Duda

Resident meteorological expert
Staff member
Oct 7, 2008
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Broomfield, CO
www.meteor.iastate.edu
One reason I have begun skimming through these articles or not reading them at all is from the following question:

Is there any new information being revealed in these articles, or is the same story being recycled and retold as more magazines see the popularity of the story from other outlets? When I skimmed through the NG article, I saw very little in the way of new details regarding the deaths of Tim et al. Instead I saw the same story that was told in earlier articles that were released back in June. I'm not trying to say that their story isn't worth telling, but I've already read it before, and I don't care to have to skim through 10 pages of recycled rhetoric to see if we learned anything new about it.
 
May 1, 2004
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630
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Springfield, IL
www.skip.cc
Updated video analysis of the May 31 El Reno event, including refined path and rating change of the tornado, and the complete chase route of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young. Detailed studies of video from the storm with overlays of chaser and tornado positions are also used to understand why chasers are being impacted by tornadoes and how they can avoid future impacts using safer chase strategies and escape routes. Many thanks to Gabe Garfield over at the Norman NWS for providing detailed timings and positions for both the updated tornado track and Twistex's chase route.

Watch video >