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Killer Storms: Dr. Joe Schaefer

May 4, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

PHIL PONCE: For a closer look at the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma and Kansas, we turn to Joe Schaefer, director of the storm prediction center in Norman, Oklahoma. Welcome, Mr. Schaefer. I presume most of the tornadoes that you predict are far away from you personally but that wasn’t the case last night. You were pretty close last night weren’t you, to where some of these tornadoes touched down?

JOE SCHAEFER, Director, Storm Prediction Center: You know, Phil, the tornadoes last night were within about four miles of my office. Some of my employees actually were in buildings that were damaged by the tornadoes that went by. So, you know, it was getting a little close to home here last night.

PHIL PONCE: Was that presumably fairly unnerving for you to be doing your work while that was going on so close now?

JOE SCHAEFER: You get so engaged in trying to track the storms and where they’re going and make forecasts for the future that really you sort of lose track of where you are. You just get so engrossed in the weather business that you loss sight of, Holy Mackerel, this is right here.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schaefer, let’s talk a little bit about the size. We have heard estimates about one of the tornadoes being as wide as a half mile to going up to a mile. What do you know about the size of the tornadoes that hit?

JOE SCHAEFER: Well, right now the survey teams are still out looking at the damage. But from the pictures that were on the television last night, it’s easy to see how at times some of those storms might have got up three quarters of a mile to a mile wide. The one long track tornado was on the ground for almost 70 miles. It wasn’t one continuous tornado; it was one storm that would drop — a series of tornadoes that would drop a tornado. And the tornado would move a little ahead of the updraft and a new tornado would form and it just kept this way and tracked on the ground for well over 70 miles.

PHIL PONCE: And how unusual is it for the path to be that wide and for it to be on the ground that long?

JOE SCHAEFER: Those long-track tornadoes are really pretty unusual. You know, back historically speaking there’s been reports of tracks over 200 miles long. But it’s probably the same thing — just these families where you get one forming after another under the same storm. And these things probably occur three, four times a year at the most. To get it this wide at the same time that, is unusual. And the real striking thing is this tornado went right through the metropolitan area. So it actually hit a city. And that doesn’t happen all that frequently. It’s not that cities are protected, it’s just if you take the proportion of the countryside that has metropolitan areas in it it’s just a pretty small number.

PHIL PONCE: So you’re saying it was just chance that it hit a city, it wasn’t — it wasn’t that it doesn’t happen, it’s just statistically it typically does not.

JOE SCHAEFER: Right. Just statistically it doesn’t. So, this one was a big, long track, wide tornado that went running right through the — the outskirts or even through part of the inner part of Oklahoma City. So that was what really made the thing striking and caused all the damage that Lieutenant Governor Fallin was talking about before.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schaefer, we saw pictures of tornadoes side by side. How unusual is that to have several tornadoes happening at the same time?

JOE SCHAEFER: Well, that’s relatively rare. What happens is the one tornado gets — the updraft starts to die and moves over to another portion of the cloud. And then the new tornado develops there. So you can have these two — two on the ground at the same time. But it’s really not observed that much. What was unique about the thing last night is two of the local network affiliates had traffic cams following the tornado for two to three hours before it got into Oklahoma City. So, you know, we had this close-up marvelous photography going on for two, two and a half hours before the storm actually got to the Oklahoma City metropolitan area.

PHIL PONCE: And we heard the lieutenant governor say that the warning was pretty good. So you feel pretty good about the job you did last night as far as predicting?

JOE SCHAEFER: Yes. The unfortunate thing is that we had, you know, forty people roughly speaking in Oklahoma and another three to five up in Kansas. And, you know, that’s tragic that that happened. But really this storm, we were very, very lucky. We had a good job of forecasting the media folk, the TV weather people did a good job. They helped us get our message out and I think it really went pretty good.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schaefer, can you predict what a tornado’s intensity might be?

JOE SCHAEFER: I wish we could. That is one of the things that our friends in the twister movies can do that we can’t. What we can do is we’ll forecast tornadoes, and the more intense tornadoes typically, 92 percent of them are inside tornado watches. So when we put out a watch, we will catch the more intense tornadoes but we’re not yet smart enough to be able to say, hey, this is an F-2 tornado, this is going to be an F-5 tornado – one of these days maybe.

PHIL PONCE: And – again — you’re referring to the severity of the tornadoes. Speaking of tornado watches, what is the latest, is the area still under a tornado watch?

JOE SCHAEFER: The tornado watch is in the Oklahoma City area ended — the threat essentially ended about 11 o’clock this morning and moved eastward. We now have a large watch that runs till I think it’s 10 o’clock tonight that covers the eastern third of Oklahoma, the western two-thirds of Arkansas and the north — the northeast corner of Texas and a little bit of Louisiana. We had reports of 70-mile long track again down in Texas with this watch, and there was one person died with it. So the system is still producing tornadoes as we go into this evening for the second day in a row.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Schaefer, I thank you very.

JOE SCHAEFER: Thank you.