Tornado torment: The half a dozen people who are responsible for severe storm warnings

connectVideoTornado, severe weather outbreak caused historic damage

A two-week attack of volatile weather has brought death and destruction from the Southern Plains to the Northeast, because of a jam pattern.

NORMAN, Okla. – It is the kind of place that stays calm, even when the world outside is alive with storm – or, more specifically, tornadoes.

For the half-dozen on-duty meteorologists – and only two or three nights – stationed at the NOAA/National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, south of Oklahoma City, the lives of all Americans in their hands.

For the past two weeks in particular, several states across America’s heartland are lit up and open by the severe and deadly weather phenomenon, with millions caught in the crosshairs.

“Day after day we must be on our game, there is no substitute for something else. Here we have no media-line, no distractions, its all about the science,” William Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the Storm Prediction Center, told Fox News. “We remain focused on the science and getting the job done, that is focused on saving lives. The decisions we make have the power to impact many, many lives in the country.”

William Bunting, Chief of forecast Operations at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. located next to a hand-marked weather map
(Fox News/Hollie McKay)

Indeed, the Centre is quiet and without external noise and chaos. Instead, the dedicated team of Ph. D. professionals working behind the glass walls, and a blatant “Critical extreme Weather conditions of the Day. Enter for Official Business” sign – carefully monitor and zone in on the mildest of the changes in the air pressure and cloudiness.


Five times per day, two of the team members will publish an updated and detailed report of the weather, which is spreading rapidly worldwide.

“For heavy weather, time is of the essence. The survivors are those who hear the warning and take action, they do what we want them to do,” Bunting explained. “That is the reason why they live. Given the (size and number) of tornadoes in the past few weeks, the death toll is relatively low. The system works well and does what we had hoped for. It can be better, and that is the reason why we all come to work every day.”

Still, tornadoes have been blamed for claiming the lives of 38 people just this year – with the vast majority of the victims arising from an Alabama tornado in the beginning of March.


And while the team from wholeheartedly embracing the advancements that have come with technological innovations in the recent times, much of their methodology is steeped in the familiar. Many of the members of the team still draw their maps and color code them with a pencil instead of relying on their state-of-the-art gizmos and gadgets. Green is for humidity; red for temperature.

“The history of severe storm forecasting is closely connected with observational data. We tend to think otherwise drawing by hand than on a computer. If you have data on a screen that you can miss things,” Bunting warned. “With the hand, I am forced to look at every little line I have to draw and analyze. Some lines may not be displayed on a computer. So, we all have a box of pencils.”

Each pencil box is also floors in time and tradition. Most have handed down by prophets from generation to generation, and every meteorologist, there will almost universally tell you about a child had a passion for the understanding of a fool.

“I was a late bloomer. I was nine when I got interested in the weather,” Bunting joked. “Most of the people who were here in the by the age of four or five.”

Below their second-floor offices, sitting items from the 1996 epic “Twister,” starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and the employees of the “Flying Cow” cafe – a tribute to the Oklahoma-set tornado movie.

Within the Storm Prediction Center
(Fox News/Hollie McKay)

But repeatedly, Bunting makes clear that they harbor no Hollywood fantasies about their duty to the American people to be as good as possible as much of the time.

“We are non-stop on trying to get the message to the people, to emphasize that while the storms had yesterday worse was coming. We are constantly focused on how we get the details of the message out to the people who need it,” Bunting noted. “Every day is different; every day is serious. And when the storms come at us in Norman, we have to have our own family.”

“Twister” items from the hit 1996 film set in Oklahoma


And while much has been discussed and analysed with regard to the role of climate change in the recent spout of unexpected and unprecedented tornadoes carving paths through a large part of the country, the experts say that there simply is not enough reliable historical record to make a final judgement.

“We just don’t know. Would you be a tornado of record, and of us only goes back to 1950. And in the scheme of things, although it sometimes seems that way, tornadoes are still a rare event, to begin with,” Bunting continued. “We’re hearing them more now than we used to, because people know to look or have a smartphone to document them or tweet. We know of many more occur as a result of this. In the end, we still know little about the conditions of exactly how they form.”

As it is now, there are still no reliable computer models in order actively to predict a tornado. Bunting stressed that they still very much rely on human analysis and the gathering of information and the model attempts to date have been sub-par but at 59, he is optimistic that a reliable model will be available to come in his life.

(Fox News/Hollie McKay)

Next door, another team of experts to hover around the screens in the quest to change such a view. This team meets as part of the Hazardous Weather Testbed” to develop and experiment with weather models and the computer data with the goal that it is exactly enough to be incorporated in the existing arsenal of scientific instruments.

“The models they test are not yet proven, but are the ones that promise,” Bunting said.

In addition, in an adjoining room, the hallway, the other team of around 20 are managing the huge task of providing emergency warnings to communities in the pre-dawn of a tornado or heavy storm strikes.

“That is the most important thing we do, and last week somewhere in the state of Oklahoma a tornado hit it every day,” said Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist with the Norman Forecast Office of the National Weather Service. “We have issued 80 warnings since the beginning of May to and with cities and provinces, urging them to take cover.”

A team of experts within the National Weather Center “experiment” in real-time with promising models to improve weather predictability
(Fox News/Hollie McKay)

Smith emphasizes that, although much progress has been made when it comes to accurately anticipate the weather, it remains a “complicated” form of art, sometimes with no time to raise the red flags.

He pointed to the tornado that the small Oklahoma town of El Reno, 50 miles away, last weekend. “Look at what happened in El Reno on Saturday night. A tornado developed very quickly, in just four minutes, up to 160 km per hour, the wind, it hit around 10: 30, then it was gone,” he recalled. “It was so fast; it is difficult to respond and difficult to warn. It is an exciting deal.”


The sudden and ferocious tornado left a El Reno mobile home park and motel in tatters, but it was business as usual almost immediately.

El Reno was hit with a sudden tornado last weekend
(Fox News/Hollie McKay)

“What can you say,” a local woman near to the area razed said on Thursday afternoon, with a nod to the tolerance. “Let’s go.”

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