STRATFORD — Most people head for cover when tornado warnings are issued.
But the Carter brothers, Donny and Gary, are a different breed. Instead of crawling down in a cellar, the Stratford storm chasers can’t wait to get as close to the action as possible.
Donny Carter was fascinated by severe weather before he was old enough to attend school. Three decades later, he can’t resist chasing a swirling, boiling mass of black clouds as they rumble across Garvin County.
“I guess it’s hard to explain why I’m attracted to storms,” he said. “I remember drawing pictures of tornadoes when I was about 5 years old. For me, there has always been something about severe weather that attracts me. Thunder, lightning, tornadoes — instead of scaring me when I was a kid, they fascinated me. They still do.”
While storm chasing has become popular in recent, it wasn’t always a hobby for masses.
“When I got my driver’s license at 16, I started listening to our portable AM/FM radio for severe weather reports,” Donny recalled. “Weather forecasting in the 1970s wasn’t what it is today.”
The teen-ager had to be creative to get past his mom when he chased storms.
“I was afraid my mom wouldn’t let me leave the house if she knew I was chasing storms,” Donny said. “So, I’d tell her I was going somewhere else. Later, she told me she knew what I was up to. But she said it would have been different had she knew the danger. ‘I thought you guys knew what you were doing,’ she said.”
Donny Carter found his storm-chasing partner in the early 1980s — his younger brother Gary.
“Donny and I always shared a room while I was growing up,” Gary Carter, owner of Sonrise Peach Farm, said. “Whenever a storm roared through, Donny would wake me up so I could watch it. When I was 11 or 12, I asked my mom if I could go with him to chase storms. I was shocked when she said yes.”
Donny’s first memory of a tornado was the monster twister in 1961 that devastated portions of Konawa. He also remembers the massive mile-wide cyclone that wrecked havoc in the Wichita Falls, Texas, area.
The April 10, 1979 tornado that hit Wichita Falls is the state’s fifth-deadliest and one of the largest in U.S. history.
On that spring day, three large supercell storms developed, each producing a series of tornadoes that moved quickly across the northern Texas and southern Oklahoma plains.
Some of those twisters killed 11 people in nearby Vernon, one in Harrold and three in Lawton.
The Wichita Falls tornado stayed on the ground an hour and traveled 47 miles as it wiped out a fifth of the city and damaged even more areas before dissipating in Oklahoma. It is rated an F4, with winds from 207-260 mph.
In assessing damage, researchers realized that they had been giving the wrong advice in telling people to open windows as a tornado approached, officials said. They realized that what blew the roofs off houses was wind getting inside — and that homes with storm doors and windows or shutters fared better.
“The Wichita Falls tornado eventually made its way to the Stratford area,” he said. “I saw three tornadoes that day. One went north of Stratford, another went south and still another went right over the city. Fortunately, the tornado didn’t touch down or Stratford would have been devastated. My brand new Chevy pickup received a lot of hail damage.”
The tornado season has gotten off to a roaring start. Tornadoes were spotted in about 10 Tennessee counties April 7, with the worst damage appearing to be in Gallatin and other suburbs of Nashville, Tenn. Nine people were killed in Sumner County, and three were killed in Warren County, about 65 miles southeast of Nashville, according to the Associated Press.
Gary Carter credits advances in technology for making storm-chasing more scientific.
“Now we use our computer and cell phones to download radar,” the 36-year-old said. “That gives us real-time locations of storm cells. We also get information from the National Weather Service.”
Donny Carter — the 48-year-old works for a Wynnewood oil refinery — said he has seen about 70 tornadoes during his 32-year career as a storm chaser.
“There’s a lot of people chasing storms today,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we were the only nuts heading for a tornado instead of running away from one. It may sound crazy but Gary and I aren’t scared of them. Some people bungee jump or climb mountains. We like to chase storms.”
Gary Carter said the prime months in Oklahoma for twisters are April and May.
“tornadoes can occur any day of the year,” he said. “But weather conditions during the spring are most conducive for the development of twisters. We generally keep watch from about 1 p.m. to dusk.”
The Carters plan their schedule from long-range weather forecasts.
“If the forecast is for severe weather a couple of days down the road, we mow our yards, change our batteries and make plans to chase storms if they develop,” Gary said.
There are three key conditions required for thunderstorms to form: Moisture in the lower to mid levels of the atmosphere, unstable air that continues to rise once it begins lifting from near the ground and a lifting force (Something is needed to cause the air to begin rising. The most common lifting force is heating of air near the ground. As the air warms it becomes lighter and begins rising. Advancing masses of cool air, which force warm air upward, also trigger thunderstorms.)
When all the conditions are present, humid air will rise high into the sky and cool and condense into towering clouds, forming thunderstorms. This air rising into a thunderstorm is called an updraft. Tornadoes form within a thunderstorm's updraft.
The strongest tornadoes are often near the edge of the updraft, not far from where air is descending in a downdraft caused by the thunderstorms with falling rain or hail. This is why a burst of heavy rain or hail sometimes announces a tornado's arrival. Tornado development is related to temperature differences across the edge of downdraft air that wraps around a storm system, according to forecasters.
Tornadoes are commonly associated with the nation's heartland — a 10-state area stretching from Texas and Oklahoma to Nebraska that also includes Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Arkansas — known as Tornado Alley.
But twisters are not limited to this region. Tornadoes have occurred in all 50 states and are more common in Florida than they are in Oklahoma. But Florida’s tornadoes are generally weak — for twisters — with winds around 100 mph.
Conversely, tornadoes that have hit Oklahoma are some of the most violent on record. The May 1999 tornado that struck Oklahoma City and its southern suburbs had winds of nearly 320 just above the ground.
Tornadoes are ranked by the damage they do using the six-tiered Fujita Scale. F0 and F1 tornadoes on the scale are considered "weak" and cause minimal to moderate damage with winds from 40-112 mph. F2 and F3 tornadoes are considered strong, packing winds of 113-206 mph that can cause major to severe damage. Violent tornadoes are those classified F4 and F5 with winds exceeding 206 mph. Damage is extreme to catastrophic.
Do the Carters plan to retire from storm chasing any time soon?
“We’ll probably be out there until a tornado gets us,” Gary said.
Most tornadoes that roar through the Stratford area are moving from the southwest to the northwest, they said.
“Most tornadoes from on the southwest quadrant of a storm,” Donny said. “The conditions have to be just right to form a tornado: Strong southerly winds, dew points in the 60s or 70s, a dry line in the west, temperatures in the 80s or above, a low pressure in the Panhandle and a cold front behind the system. When you have golf-ball size hail, you can be sure it is a tornadic-type storm. tornadoes normally have a counterclockwise circulation. But recently we witnessed a funnel cloud near Ada with a clockwise rotation. That was the first time I had ever seen that.”
The Carters said they aren’t exactly role models for storm chasers.
“We know the safe things to do when chasing storms,” Gary said. “But we don’t always do it. We have taken a beating by hail by storms near Ada and Elmore City. We would tell others interested in storm chasing to do as we say not as we do.”
Storm chasing may not be for some folks, but for the Carter brothers it is a way of life. Donny and Gary Carter are daredevils, attempting to get as close as possible to dangerous storms. While they always hope there are no injuries or property damage when they go in search of twisters, they are hooked on the chase. It also gives the brothers opportunities to spend time together.
The Carters said an individual shouldn't become a storm chaser unless he is serious about the hobby. It's very dangerous. There are many other dangers for chasers than tornadoes, which usually can be avoided if you know what you're doing. Wet roads can cause a car to skid, floods can carry automobiles away, large hail can break windshields or cause injury and lightning can be fatal.
It’s been a long time since Donny Carter would wake his brother up when storms would rumble above their home near Stratford.
“Chasing storms is something we both really enjoy,” Donny said. “It’s hard to put in words, but we’re just fascinated by severe weather. Maybe that might seem strange to some people, but it’s just a normal part of our lives.”
Oklahomans know the spring drill all too well.
Watch for ominous clouds, heed storm warnings, seek shelter.
Sure, the twisters have taken it easy on Ada and elsewhere in Tornado Alley recently. Before a tornado touched down in March 2004, Oklahoma had been through the longest “drought” in since detailed records began in 1950. The previous record was 248 days that began on July 16,1990 and ended with the Ada tornado outbreak of March 21, 1991.
The last official Oklahoma tornado was reported on May 16, 2003. On Jan. 21, a record was set for the longest period — 250 days — in Oklahoma without a twister since detailed record-keeping began in 1950, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Society.
But Okies know that could change with one ugly storm front.
It’s never too early to map out a severe storm strategy, said Chad Letellier, emergency management director for Ada and Pontotoc County.
“The best precaution a family can make in the event of a tornado is to have a plan,” he said. “Talk about what steps you will take if your area receives a tornado warning. Most people wait too long before seeking shelter. People in mobile homes should evacuate whenever warnings are issued.”
When a tornado warning is issued, people should take cover immediately and leave mobile homes and vehicles. In homes, residents should move to a basement or storm shelter, or an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor.
They should stay away from windows and outside walls.
The city of Ada does not provide any public storm shelters, Letellier said.
In case you think tornado preparedness is a waste of time, consider this: the Ada area is the most likely spot in the United States to be hit by a tornado, according to a recent study.
The unpredictability and severity of Oklahoma’s weather has been a hot topic of conversation since the Land Run of 1889 opened Oklahoma Territory to nonIndian settlement.
Perhaps no single weather-related phenomenon has caused more dread and consternation than the tornado.
Oklahoma sits smack dab in the “eye” or “tornado alley,” a corridor extending from north Texas through the Sooner State, north through Kansas and Nebraska, and then winds its path east into Iowa.
Oklahoma’s unique geographical location increases the frequency of twisters: warm air from the Gulf of Mexico pushes north, while even warmer air blows in from the southwest and cold polar air surges into Oklahoma from the Rocky Mountains. When these air masses mix, the result is often a particularly explosive cocktail.
A 2002 historical study of tornadoes by the National Severe Storm Laboratory at Norman pinpointed Pontotoc County in southeastern Oklahoma as the most likeliest spot for a twister in the United States. Meteorologists used weather and damage data from more than 10,000 tornadoes that occurred between 1921 and 1995 to create computer models of the probability of twisters striking areas across the nation.
Early settlers of Oklahoma often had little — if any — warning of incoming “cyclones.” If a twister was spotted, officials would ring the church bell to alert area residents to seek shelter. More often than not, it hit without warning.
For example, on the morning of March 30, 1897, a ferocious twister suddenly swooped down on the small Oklahoma Territory community of Chandler in present Lincoln County.
A group of rowdies had been passing the time at Elmer's Saloon when the storm twisted its path over the flimsy, wooden structure. At the height of its fury, the howling winds dislodged the bar's side walls, causing the leaky roof to collapse on whiskey-drinking, poker-playing patrons.
One of the customers, “who had taken on considerable of a load” of Jack Daniels “crawled out from under the debris, shook himself, turned to the rotund barkeep, and asked, ‘'Elmer, whoinell started that fight?’”
Unfortunately, many in Chandler had not been as lucky. Fourteen were killed and hundreds of other were injured, several seriously.
The two deadliest tornadoes to strike Oklahoma occurred on April 9, 1947, at Woodward, and on May 10, 1905, at Snyder in present southwestern Oklahoma. More than 100 were killed by each twister.
Ironically, the warning system in 1947 had hardly improved since the 1890s. But after a tornado smashed into Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City that year, military authorities directed Major B. G. Fawbush and Capt. Robert C. Miller, two Air Force meteorologists stationed there, to determine whether or not tornadoes could be forecast. Their efforts laid the groundwork for modern warning systems.
Doppler radar, NEXRAD, satellite imaging and storm tracking have replaced the school or church bell as a warning device. Oklahoma is home to the National Severe Storms Prediction Center, the National Severe Storms Laboratory and the National Weather Service’s regional forecast center, all located at Norman.
Unfortunately, technology can only do so much to prevent casualties from twisters.
A massive supercell storm on May 3, 1999, produced 21 tornadoes, decimating areas of the state from Lawton in the south to near Tulsa in the northeast. The largest of the twisters, rated as an F-5 on the Fujita scale, spawned winds near 320 mph, the most powerful ever recorded. The storms killed 44 people, injured almost 800 others and damaged or destroyed about 8,000 buildings. Had the giant tornado blazed through the Oklahoma City metro area a few decades ago, officials at the National Weather Service say, the death toll would have likely been much higher.
Oklahoma deadliest twisters
Date Fatalities Location
April 9, 1947 181 Woodward*
April 12, 1945 102 Antlers
May 10, 1905 97 Snyder
May 2, 1920 75 Peggs
April 27, 1942 56 Pryor
May 3, 1999 44 OKC Area
*The number of fatalities at Woodward and Snyder are disputed by various sources.
Oklahoma recorded no tornados last May, the heart of tornado season, for the first time since record-keeping began in 1950.
2004 and 2005 were the busiest ever in the U.S., with 1,817 tornadoes topping the record by 400 in 2004. In 2003, 313 tornadoes hit 19 states setting the record for the largest one-week flurry of tornadoes and killing more than 40 people.
The 25 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes in the United States
(Source: National Severe Storms Laboratory)
Date Fatalities Location
1. March 18, 1925 Tri-State 695
2. May 6, 1840 Natchez, Miss. 317
3. May 27, 1896 St. Louis, Mo. 255
4. April 5, 1936 Tupelo, Miss. 216
5. April 6, 1936 Gainesville, Ga. 203
6. April 9, 1947 Woodward 181
7. April 24, 1908 Amite, La. ‘Miss 143
8. June 1899 Wisconsin 117
9. June 1953 Flint, Mich. 115
10. May 1953 Waco, Texas 114
May 18, 1902 Goliad, Texas 114
12. March 23, 1913 Omaha, Neb. 103
13. May 26, 1917 Mattoon, Ill. 101
14. June 23, 1944 Shinnston, W.V. 100
15. April 18, 1880 Marshfield, Mo. 99
16. June 1, 1903 Gainesville, Ga. 98
16. May 9, 1927 Poplar Bluff, Mo. 98
18. May 10, 1905 Snyder, Okla. 97
19. April 24, 1908 Natchez, Miss. 91
20. June 9, 1953 Worcester, Mass. 90
21. April 20, 1920 Miss./Waco, Ala. 88
22. June 28, 1924 Sandusky, Ohio 85
23. May 25, 1955 Udall, Kan. 80
24. September 1927 St. Louis, Mo. 79
25. March 27, 1890 Louisville, Ky. 76
STRATFORD — Most people head for cover when tornado warnings are issued.