SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Gary England is the weatherman in a place in which weather is not only the news but sometimes life and death. He's been the chief meteorologist at KWTV in Oklahoma City for more than 40 years, guiding viewers through heat waves, droughts, flooding and thousands of tornadoes. Gary England stepped back from the green screen in August and he's retired now, a local legend who's become national news. Gary England joins us now from a studio in Oklahoma City. Thanks so much for being with us.
GARY ENGLAND: Thanks, sir. Thanks for inviting me.
SIMON: You know what we usually ask for people to voice test? We usually say could you tell us what the weather is like there today? It occurs to me: what's the weather like there today, Mr. England?
ENGLAND: Well, the weather in Oklahoma City is sunny and hot. Actually, a beautiful day.
SIMON: Thank you. You grew up in Oklahoma. Are people just different about the weather there?
ENGLAND: Yes, they are. They're very much weather aware, because the weather here is sometimes pretty tough, like it is in Kansas and Texas and all the other places. But they're weather aware. So, a little bit different. They're used to what we have. They seem to handle it quite well. They, you know, they all pretty well know their safety precautions. They usually react well. So, a little bit different group of people in Oklahoma than you'll find in some other states.
SIMON: Getting up so many mornings of the year not knowing whether or not a tornado might come churning through your street must make a different kind of person.
ENGLAND: It certainly does. And, you know, we do our best to train people to get up in the morning, obviously, and find out if there's a risk. And with the advent of all the wireless devices - the phones and such - it's much easier to do.
SIMON: But despite all the technical innovations there've been over the years, including a few that you've figured in, like the use of Doppler radar, how predictable is a thing like a tornado?
ENGLAND: Well, it's much better than it used to be. And when you get a big tornado - the only thing good about a big tornado is, let me tell you, it's easy to deal with because we know where it is, we know where it's going and we basically know what it's going to do when it gets there.
SIMON: Gary, can you take us back to May 3, 1999?
ENGLAND: That's a tough trip. But I can do that.
ENGLAND: Well, we knew a few days before, like several days before, there'd be severe thunderstorms, probably a few tornadoes. But everybody was still kind of iffy on how big and how bad. And I walked outside and, you know, and I, gosh, the atmosphere was heavy. I could smell the Gulf of Mexico all the way in Oklahoma; that moist, that smell you only smell a few times, and the clouds were streaming northward. And I just, something about it, I just walked right back in to the weather producer and I said call a priority one. And priority one meant we expect severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Still didn't know they'd be that big. And about 4:30, 4 P.M., the first tornado touched down, you know, 150 miles, 140 miles or so southwest of Oklahoma City. Bang, it's on the ground. Bang, it's gone. Then it came back. It cycled. Other storms were going up at this same time.
To make a long story short, we ended up with about 60 tornadoes that day in our broadcast area. And the main one, the one that came onto the metro, well, this supercell just kept producing tornadoes. And it would weaken, then every time they came back they were larger. Got near Chickasha, Oklahoma, about 45 miles or so southwest of Oklahoma City, and I tell you, this stovepipe, stovepipe tornado - from the base of the thunderstorm straight to the ground was straight as the old stovepipe, and it was big. And around it was rotating a tornado that was about the size of a normal tornado. And right then I'm going, you know, this, boy, this doesn't look good at all. And as soon it got a little north of Chickasha, this damage there, it dissipated. We're watching it live. Just, bam, it's gone. We think, God, it's great. It's gone. And I swear, I don't know the exact time frame but it seemed like in 60 seconds or 120 seconds, it was back and it was a mile wide. It really was two miles wide. And you could see the power line flashes. It was just bam, bam, bam, bam.
And when that's happening, you know it's in a populated area and you know that people are probably dying because not everyone gets the message. So, at some point - 'cause I'd never seen anything like this in my life. You know, I knew I had to say something different, 'cause we've done for years: take your immediate tornado precautions. Do it now. Blah, blah, blah. They'd heard that hundreds, if not thousands of times and I had to say something different. So, the first thing I said was, don't go out and look at this; it will kill you. And then a little after that I said, you need to be below ground level to survive.
And we had plenty of warning on this storm, you know. But as the tornado came in to southwest Oklahoma City and Moore and then across Moore into Dell City and the Midwest City area, near Tinker Air Force Base, you know, it came in at around 300 miles an hour. It was the strongest winds, at that time, ever recorded on the face of the Earth. And at the time that major tornado was moving through, there were dozens of other tornadoes coming down in other areas that we broadcast to. So, for a meteorologist, it was your living nightmare, just trying to get the information out, keep the people safe. And we ended up losing 40-plus people that day and 700 injured.
SIMON: I suspect there are people listening to this conversation who are saying to themselves, why do people live in a place with such treacherous weather?
ENGLAND: Well, we like the weather. We may get 300-mile-per-hour winds but only occasionally.
SIMON: It's quite an endorsement.
ENGLAND: It'll rip the shirt right off of your back one day and the next day it's so beautiful you can hardly stand it.
SIMON: Gary England, master meteorologist of Oklahoma City. Thanks so much for being with us.
ENGLAND: It was my pleasure.
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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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