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McCarthy, Jones, Schaefer and BakerMay 24, 1999 — As violent tornadoes ripped through populated areas of Oklahoma and Kansas May 3, countless lives were saved as a direct result of early warnings and new technology installed during the National Weather Service's (NWS) modernization effort.

Preliminary records show 52 tornadoes hit southwestern and central Oklahoma in a 10 hour period. Forecasters at the Norman NWS Forecast Office issued 116 county warnings broadcast on NOAA Weather Radio, ham radio and local television and radio stations. The Wichita, Kansas NWS Forecast Office issued seven county warnings that same evening.

Additionally, severe weather outlooks issued earlier in the day by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman and the NWS Forecast Offices put everyone on alert for severe weather.

Dr. James Baker, NOAA Administrator, said during a recent visit to the stricken area, "It is fair to say that the intense effort to modernize the National Weather Service paid off in this single event. All the elements worked. Everyone should be really proud of the front line or support function they did to make this happen."

Tornado StatisticsDamage from a total of 66 tornadoes throughout Oklahoma was incredible. One particular tornado, which reached an intensity at times of an F5 (the highest rating on the Fujita wind damage scale) and stayed on the ground for almost an hour and a half, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in a 38 mile path as it hit the communities of Moore, South Oklahoma City, Midwest City and Del City. In all, 47 people died, more than 2,600 homes and businesses were destroyed, and 8,000 buildings were damaged in Oklahoma. Further north in Kansas, an F4 tornado that traveled 17 miles through Wichita and Haysville killed six people, damaged 8,500 buildings an totally destroyed 1,109 buildings.

"With the amount of damage, we can estimate based on a long historical record that without warnings hundreds more lives would have been lost—700 direct fatalities could have occurred," said Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), also in Norman.

Oklahoma Tornado DamagePersonal stories to illustrate the effectiveness of the warnings are numerous. One survivor, Darrell Turner, along with members of his family and neighbors—35 total —sought shelter in his brother's storm cellar in Grady County, southwest of Oklahoma City, after hearing National Weather Service tornado warnings on a local television station. Winds from the F5 tornado pulled the door off the cellar and destroyed their homes. Yet everyone inside survived. Unfortunately, in the same community, 11 people lost their lives.

Dr. Baker and John Jones, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the National Weather Service, visited Norman May 13 to meet with employees involved with the tornado outbreak. Dr. Baker expressed his respect and admiration for everyone's hard work, and credited the group's spirit of commitment and professionalism.