Tornado Disaster: It came like a jet plane, and nothing in science could halt it

SOME COMPARED it to the sound of a jumbo jet or a train coming through the house. Others remembered the bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The destruction was sudden, terrible and all but irresistible, regardless of how sophisticated America is becoming in its ability to predict and spot these vast natural bulldozers that sweep across the plains states every year.

"We could actually hear the train sound for a long time, then for about 30 seconds you hear the snapping and stuff blowing around," said Nelson Austin. He had sprinted to the basement and held the door closed as the storm swept over the house, then emerged to find chaos had come to the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. "It was pretty intense," he said. "This was like a bombing had happened - people were bleeding and crying, telephone poles were down."

Loretta and Theresa Jones hid in a cupboard, but put their survival down to a higher power. "We were in the closet and calling in the name of Jesus,'' Theresa said. "We heard it coming and - whoa, whoa, Jesus - we called on his name and I felt his arms come around us and save us from that tornado. And I thank God for that."

For all the science that now surrounds the forecasting and explanation of tornadoes, a well-built cupboard and a strong faith are probably still about as useful as anything else in surviving a tornado as strong as that which devastated Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Doppler radars of the local television stations showed only too clearly the trouble brewing in the skies as evening fell: the tell-tale hooked shapes of the thunderstorms, the vast twisters forming up and sweeping across the towns, farms and highways. In most houses, hurricane warnings would have sounded: the hurricane sirens linked to the government system, or the weather channel radios which switch on automatically. For some, escape to a cellar or shelter may have saved their lives; but for many, it was either too late, or they had not heard the alarms in the first place.

Oklahoma is only too used to the hellish roar of the tornado. It sits square in the middle of "Tornado Alley", a belt of land that stretches down the centre of the country where the conditions for tornado formation are particularly propitious. Here, in the lowland areas of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri valleys, the twister is a constant threat to life and property. Oklahoma has an average of 52 tornadoes a year and over 200 people have been killed in tornadoes in the state since 1950. The Red River Valley Tornadoes of April 1979, almost exactly 20 years ago, claimed 56 lives in the south of the state and in northern Texas.

But few of the hurricanes have been of this intensity. There have only been 50 F-5 - or "incredible" - tornadoes since 1950, according to government statistics, and even fewer F-6s, officially designated as "inconceivable". Of the 1,254 tornadoes in the US last year, 33 resulted in deaths - a total of 129, the highest number since 1974, when a "super outbreak" of 148 tornadoes in 24 hours killed over 300 people.

Unsurprisingly, one of the centres where hurricanes are studied most intently in the world is in Norman, Oklahoma, the home of the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Scientists there said that the storms may have been a mile wide at times. "I watched from my house when the tornado crossed Oklahoma City. It was a monster, it was huge," said Dave Imy, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Centre, clearly in awe of what he had seen and heard.

Although scientists know in some detail how and why tornadoes form, there is much that they do not know about why sometimes apparently similar conditions produce different sizes of tornado. And timing is still the crucial factor: storms form very quickly, and tornadoes form out of them in minutes. That often leaves little time to alert residents. The spread of weather radios and tornado sirens has helped, as has the ability of television to inform people when a storm is imminent. But all too often, there is just not enough time.

For now, the authorities will concentrate all their efforts on recovery. Clearing up after a tornado is always a vast task, exacerbated by the fact that roads are often blocked, telephone lines down and airports closed. There were widespread electricity cuts in Oklahoma. At least six sub-stations were out and power lines were down across the state.

The state was also in desperate need of assistance with casualties. Hundreds were wounded, some of them seriously. Medical facilities were struggling to keep up, with patients being treated in corridors and hospital cafeterias. The Oklahoma Blood Institute was open all night to take donations, but the state was running out of blood. Many of the worst injuries were caused by flying glass and wreckage.

For many people, it will take years to recover from the loss of everything they owned. In Moore, one of the suburbs worst hit, Jennifer Schantz stood in what had been her front garden, with nothing but rubble around her, clutching her young daughter. "We just bought this house,'' she said.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Voices
Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014
voices

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film
films

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems and Network Administrator

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album