A dangerous severe weather outbreak is set to play out across the southern Plains Monday afternoon and night. Forecasters expect a swarm of tornadoes, widespread flash flooding, and a barrage of hail and wind.
Western and central Oklahoma and parts of the Texas Panhandle are expected to be hardest hit. The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center has warned of the potential for an outbreak of “long track and violent” tornadoes in this area, which includes Oklahoma City and Norman.
The center, which issued the watch, also warned large hail up to the size of softballs and has placed these areas in a rare “high risk” zone for severe weather reserved for only the worst events, which are “long-lived, very widespread, and particularly intense.” Two million Americans are in this volatile zone.
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) May 20, 2019
“I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those outbreaks that we never forget,” tweeted Beth Carpenter, a meteorologist for TDS Weather, a consulting and forensics company.
“This is the rare kind of event that may take many lives,” added Roger Edwards, an atmospheric scientist, long-time storm chaser and weather historian. “Pray I’m wrong.”
The strength of the weather system predicted to trigger these storms is record-challenging, both near the ground and at high altitudes.
The first warning was issued in northern Texas east-northeast of Lubbock, with the second in western Oklahoma north of Elk City. These were warnings were radar-indicated and tornadoes have not yet been confirmed on the ground.
416pm radar update – numerous strong to severe storms continue from western OK into north central OK. Still watching for more storms to develop across SW OK. Tornado potential is still in place for southwest Oklahoma and western north TX, and will be increasing in central OK. pic.twitter.com/3NTiKZkrHP
— NWS Norman (@NWSNorman) May 20, 2019
Spinning storms are projected to continue rapidly develop. “[S]torms should quickly evolve into supercell structures capable of significant, long-tracked tornadoes within the next hour or two,” the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center wrote regarding the Texas storms.
Central and western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle are under tornado watch, until 10 p.m. central. This kind of watch is reserved for the most serious severe weather situations.
The Storm Prediction Center indicated a greater than 95 percent chance (or near certainty) of:
• At least two tornadoes and one or more strong tornadoes (rated EF2 or higher)
• Ten or more cases of severe straight-line winds (of at least 58 mph) and at least one case of 75 mph straight-line winds
• Ten or more cases of severe hail (at least one inch in diameter) and at least one case of hail larger than two inches in diameter.
— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) May 20, 2019
It tweeted that this is only the second time in its history it has issued a watch with such high likelihoods.
Such a scenario could create a dilemma since you’re told to shelter underground during a tornado but seek higher ground during a flood, The Weather Service said.
“I’d certainly label this ‘the nightmare scenario,’ ” tweeted Mike Smith, a meteorologist with decades of experience monitoring Midwest storms.
The atmosphere will be marked “extreme instability” according to the Storm Prediction Center, allowing for “rapid supercell formation… [and] a significant threat to life and property.”
Meteorologist Mike Smith, who has chased tornadoes since 1972, is sitting out today’s storm outbreak given its danger.
“I will not be out today. It is too dangerous,” he tweeted. “The tornadoes will be difficult to see and too dense & flooding could cut off escapes.”
In addition to tornadoes, people across Oklahoma and northern Texas need to be on alert for large, destructive hail. These hailstones fell in Wellington, TX just moments ago: https://t.co/FFQ72Vl8oK pic.twitter.com/KnntldN7Oq
— AccuWeather (@breakingweather) May 20, 2019
The National Weather Service advised that you can protect yourself being aware of the circumstances around you and making decisions based on what seems like the greatest threat and offered the following additional tips:
• Move to a designated storm shelter or interior room on the lowest floor — safe from flooding.
• Minimize travel. Stay away from flooded roads.
• Culverts/roadside ditches are not safe places during heavy rainfall.
Storms will come in multiple waves, with repeated rounds lasting through much of the night. The first batch pushed through early Monday morning, heralded by several clusters of quickly-moving storms warned for 3 inch-diameter hail and torrential rainfall. As the initial burst of storms translates northeast through lunchtime, the atmosphere behind them will reload. And the results could be downright scary.
Meanwhile, hordes of storm chasers have congregated in the volatile zone.
During the afternoon, these supercell storms, the most intense kind, are forecast to initiate just west and perhaps a little south of the Oklahoma/Texas border and well east of Interstate 27, tracking northeast at a breakneck 40 to 50 mph pace.
Additional rotating storms are predicted to form in southwest and south central Oklahoma south of Interstate 40 and west of Interstate 35 during this time. The Oklahoma City Metro area could be impacted as storms ride up the H.E. Bailey turnpike early Monday evening.
In an environment like this, conditions can change fast and storms will evolve rapidly. With the abnormally high amount of wind shear – rotational energy – present in the atmosphere, any storm that fires will begin to rotate.
Monday’s bout of life-threatening weather comes on an already infamous day — May 20. In 2013, this date was marked by an EF-5 tornado that ravaged Moore, Okla. It claimed 24 lives and leveled much of the same community that was slammed by an F5 in 1999. And six years since their last tornado disaster, the community is at risk again.
The city of 60,000 isn’t taking any chances, joining hundreds of other school districts across the Sooner State to shut their doors Monday.
The University of Oklahoma cancelled classes Monday as well, offering students and faculty a list of storm shelters.