Storm Chasers: How Experts Track Storms

The storm that tore through parts of Okalahoma City and neighboring areas Monday is being called one of the worst tornadoes in history. David Greene talks to storm chaser Josh Wurman, who is the director of the Center for Severe Weather Research, and he studies tornadoes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, good morning. Let's return to our coverage, now, of that tornado that tore across parts of Oklahoma yesterday. The worst destruction was in the city of Moore, outside Oklahoma City. This twister was massive. It flattened entire neighborhoods. Two schools were leveled. Among the dozens dead are 20 children.

INSKEEP: And weather forecasters say there is a chance of more severe weather in the area today. We are learning more this morning about how experts track storms like this. There were warnings yesterday that gave residents some time to take shelter. But the precise location of the tornado touchdown can take even scientists by surprise.

GREENE: Josh Wurman is the director of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo., and he's been tracking storms in the Kansas and Oklahoma regions since Saturday, and joins us now. Josh, good morning.

JOSH WURMAN: Good morning.

GREENE: So where, exactly, were you yesterday afternoon?

WURMAN: I was in southern Oklahoma yesterday afternoon. I had just driven through Moore and was in what, I - and most others who are pursuing storms- thought it was the riskiest area for storm, that in southern Oklahoma. So I was a few dozen miles south of Moore when the tornado occurred.

Now, we were wrong. And that points out the real limitations of our skill in being able to forecast tornadoes. We don't really know exactly where they're going to occur.

GREENE: And I mean is that just the reality that we face? I mean, in 2013 we can have the best science and wonderful, smart people tracking storms, but there's just no way to predict where a huge tornado might sort of pop up?

WURMAN: Well, we're getting better and better, so the situation is much better than it was a few decades ago. First of all, Moore was under a tornado watch. Moore was warned about this tornado. The tornado happened about 60 minutes after the first tornado warning occurred, and it formed well west of Moore. So by the time it hit Moore, they had been probably 20, 30 minutes - I don't know the exact number - of warning that that tornado is coming

And that's a much better situation than it was 30 or 50 years ago. So probably a lot of people, probably most people, had time to be alert and seek shelter from that storm. What's unfortunate is when a tornado goes through an urban area, and destroys hundreds and thousands of structures, that there are some percentage of people who have not gotten to shelters which can strong enough to survive this intensity of a storm.

GREENE: I wonder what questions you are asking this morning, looking at yesterday's events, to learn lessons for the future which could be as soon as today, because there still predictions for severe weather in this very area.

WURMAN: Sure. In fact, my team is still in the field. And we are likely to be targeting tornadic thunderstorms in northeast Texas. And there are two broad questions that we ask of scientists and forecasters when a horrible event like Moore, Okla., happens. The first is, could it have been forecast better? Why did lots of us think that the storm would happen farther away? And while Moore was under risk, it wasn't under the maximum risk that could have happened.

The second is that once the tornado was ongoing, once the tornado formed, and once it was still a dozen, two dozen minutes from Moore, why do people still die? Did people not hear the warning? Did they not do the right thing? Did they do the right thing but there weren't strong enough shelter?

Now, there are tens of thousands of people in Moore, so the survival rate in more was probably very high. That's good. On the other hand, when people die, we hope that we could do much better.

GREENE: And, Josh Wurman, you say you're going to be out there today tracking more storms. Give me a window into your day. What's your plan?

WURMAN: So, my team operates the Doppler on Wheels weather radar. We're at a National Science Foundation facility and we're doing basic research into how tornadoes form, how they do damage. So we'll be operating in northern Texas today, where there's a risk again for more strong tornadoes.

We've been out since Saturday intercepting tornadoes, several different tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma. And the last day of this fairly devastating outbreak which has caused fatalities in multiple days is tomorrow morning, and we expect there'll be a lull in severe weather across the United States for a few days.

GREENE: Josh Wurman, be safe while you're out there. Thanks for talking to us.

WURMAN: Good talking to you.

GREENE: He's the director of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder, Colo. And he joined us from his hotel in Ardmore, Okla.

INSKEEP: And we continue to have coverage of that disaster throughout today's program.

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