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Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy

May 21st, 2013

Aerial view of remains of homes in Moore, Oklahoma after May, 20th tornado. Photo licensed from AP/Steve Gooch.

One of the most powerful tornadoes in history touched down yesterday, near Oklahoma City, wiping out entire neighborhoods, a hospital and, tragically, two schools.

The scene of destruction in the Oklahoma City suburbs of Moore and Newcastle had been compared to a war zone.

Dozens of people died, including children.

The local NBC station in Oklahoma City is reporting that at least 233 people were also injured.

And all the numbers are expected to rise.

This part of Oklahama is in a section of the central U.S. known as Tornado Alley. It’s called that because the conditions are more right here, than for anywhere in the world, for tornadoes to form. And they often do, especially in Spring. Fifty-five million Americans are estimated to live in Tornado Alley.

Tornadoes form when two different masses of temperatures and humidity meet (cool dry air from the north mixing with warm moist air from the southeast, for example) and form a thunderstorm. If the lower layers of the atmosphere are unstable, it pushes warm air upward, tilting it from horizontal to vertical.  It starts to spiral as it rises and can grow increasingly intense.

You can learn more about tornadoes by  clicking here  and here for previous HTE stories about them, including more detailed explanations.

Graphic courtesy Dan Craggs/Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma has state-of-the-art tornado warning systems in place, including loud sirens to alert people if one’s forming. That likely saved many lives, as did the incredible job first-responders did as they arrived at the scene to help. There were many volunteers, too.

But this tornado was particularly devastating for a few reasons:

It dropped from the sky very quickly.  The speed and force of the tornado surprised even tornado experts. There were only 16 minutes between the first warning and when the tornado hit.

This tornado also grew surprisingly big and powerful. It was reportedly 2 miles wide. It produced winds up to 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour). It was classified in the second strongest tornado category there is, an EF-4. That too may change after the damage is assessed. EF-5 is the highest.

Graphic courtesy: NOAA

Also, tornadoes often touch down for a few minutes. This one was reportedly on the ground for about 40 minutes.

And though tornadoes, in general, have destroyed too many homes and taken too many lives, they are often happen in much less populated areas. Tragically, that was not the case this time.

Moore, Oklahoma tornado. Photo courtesy: ks0stm/Wikimedia Commons

Many people in these areas are prepared in case of tornadoes, knowing to seek shelter underground, for example. Or if they can’t go underground, then away from windows. Or evacuate to a safer place if they can.

Unfortunately, two elementary schools were directly in the tornado’s path, Briarwood Elementary and Plaza Towers Elementary. Some older children were able to evacuate one of the schools. But ABC News reports that there were no underground shelters at the schools. And this tornado was no match for that. It threw trucks around like toys. Walls crumbled. There are children still missing from Plaza Towers Elementary School and, sadly, are thought to be dead.

One local reporter at the scene teared up characterizing the scene as one of “hopelessness, helplessness, and heartbreak”.

But some teachers are being called heroes today. One lay on top of six of her students, all of whom survived.

Elementary school student Damian Britton was interviewed on the Today show this morning after surviving the tornado saying it sounded like a train coming by.

Another brave girl said, “I had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe because I didn’t want to fly away in the tornado.”

President Obama has sent help and send he would give residents whatever they need for as long as they need it.

If you would also like to help, you can have an adult donate to the Red Cross .

And, in the meantime, HTE’s heart goes out to the communities in Oklahoma, who in time will hopefully begin to rebuild their homes and lives.

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