TIME Natural Disasters

Oklahoma Wonders Why The Earth Is Shaking

Increase in Kansas earthquakes may be related to fracking
Deckhands on a Sandridge Energy oil rig change out a drill pipe in a fracking operation on the Oklahoma border in Harper County, Kan., in February 2012. A 3.8-magnitude quake in the area on December 16, 2013, rattled windows, cracked walls and shook furniture. Bo Rader—MCT/Getty Images

An unusually high number of tremors have shaken the state lately, leading some to point their fingers at the emerging hydraulic fracturing industry, though the real culprit might be a type of wastewater storage system

No strangers to nature’s fury, Oklahomans grow up accustomed scorching heat, blizzards, wrecking-ball thunderstorms and tornadoes. What they don’t see a lot of are earthquakes, which have been rattling the Sooner State with rare frequency of late — at least 115 earthquakes of varying intensities in the last week.

“You hear a loud ‘WAM!’ and you hear this loud rattle-rattle-rattle,” said Tracey Romberger, who lives near the center of this latest swarm of earthquakes between Oklahoma City and the town of Guthrie. She described the sound as “like somebody was dropping a bomb, or a cannon going off.”

The question on everyone’s mind is: why? The area has been seismically active since time immemorial but the latest swarm of earthquakes is unheard of. According to earthquake monitors EQ Charts, between 1990 and 2008 there were between 0 and 11 earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater in Oklahoma every year. In 2009 there were 49. In 2010 there were 180. In 2013 there were 291, and so far in 2014 there have been 59-plus and counting. More than a dozen notable earthquakes have shaken north-central Oklahoma in the past three days.

“It’s incredibly unusual,” said Austin Holland, a research seismologist with the Oklahoma Geologic Survey. “We’ve had swarms that are similar in nature but I don’t think we’ve had one with quite the numbers we’ve had.”

State authorities are now trying to get the bottom of the unusual seismic activity. Holland is amassing resources and data to figure out what might be to blame, and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, has already proposed new testing and monitoring requirements for wells injected with drilling wastewater, which some have blamed for the increase in earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking“, involving explosions being set off underground, has also been blamed by some for the swarm.

Spent drilling water injected back into the ground for storage at high pressure, some scientists believe, may be forcing fault lines under pressure to shift. Katie Keranen, a geophysics professor at Cornell, says “the evidence is strong” that the earthquakes are caused by fracking and wastewater disposal, both of which have become more frequent amid today’s boom in oil and gas drilling.

But others scoff at the notion that fracking might be connected to seismic activity. “I work with geologists and petroleum engineers on a daily basis and they are of the opinion that [fracking] is not causing the earthquakes,” said Eric King, an attorney who works with the oil and gas industry, comparing the earthquake swarm to climate fluctuations. “We didn’t have cold weather in Oklahoma for a lot of years but we’re having it this year,” he said.

It’s true that Oklahoma has a history of earthquake swarms that spike and then die down, but it’s also true that humans have caused earthquakes in the past. And previous swarms have been nowhere near as serious as this latest one. “We do know there have been some earthquakes caused by oil and gas activity in the state,” Holland, the research seismologist, said. “The hard part is figuring out which is which.”

In the meantime, Oklahoma is steeling itself for worse quakes in the future, as each earthquake increases the likelihood that a worse earthquake will follow. That’s a prospect that could put Oklahomans on edge. “It scares you a little bit,” says Romberger. “Makes you jump.”

TIME indonesia

Mount Kelud Erupts: Indonesia’s Most Populated Island Covered in Ash

The major eruption blanketed the island of Java in ash, forcing the evacuation of more than a hundred thousand people

TIME weather

Earth, Wind and Fire: The Extreme Weather of 2013

When it comes to weather, 2013 will be remembered primarily for Supertyphoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall, which slammed into the Philippines in early November and killed at least 6,000 people. But the typhoon wasn’t the only incidence of extreme weather this year. From the tornado that tore apart the Oklahoma town of Moore in May to the floods that drowned parts of Colorado in September, 2013 saw more than its share of storms, heat waves and other natural disasters. 2013 may not be as bad as 2012, which was the hottest year in U.S. history and featured 11 weather events that causes losses exceeding $1 billion, including Superstorm Sandy. But as these photos show, the price of extreme weather is still high.

TIME

16 Minutes

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Photograph by Alonzo Adams / AP

Revisit TIME's 2013 cover story about the devastating tornado that ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma.

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Correction Appended: May 23, 2013

Rick Smith’s job is to save lives, and he knew when he clocked in at 7 a.m. on Monday, May 20, that it was going to be a very dangerous day. More than 40 screens and monitors glowed in the horseshoe-shaped command center, and menace radiated from every one. Data from radar, hovering satellites and surveillance devices covering thousands of square miles all pointed to one conclusion: conditions were perfect for a monster tornado.

As warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., Smith is the meteorologist responsible for triggering alarms across some of the most storm-prone territory on earth. In springtime on the southern Great Plains, warm air drawn from the Gulf of Mexico meets cold air riding the jet stream from Canada to create storm cells of unbelievable power. The power to fling automobiles like toddler’s toys, to vanish houses in an eyeblink, to erase entire neighborhoods. Yet for all their force, tornadoes are the most evanescent of storms. One can grow from a fluffy white cloud into a deadly twister in under 90 minutes, and even then the terrible vortex might not touch ground. It lasts minutes, sometimes just seconds. It scours one block but skips the next. It bulldozes irresistibly ahead until it dissolves in an instant, perhaps to form again later. Perhaps not.

“When I came in the office it became obvious very, very quickly that the conditions were even more volatile than Sunday,” says Smith. Worse than Sunday was bad indeed, for the line of tornadoes that struck Oklahoma and adjacent states on May 19 included one whipping winds of 200 m.p.h. that left two people dead. All of the same ingredients were there on Monday. The screens were unanimous.

Yet saying that the weather will be bad on a May afternoon in Tornado Alley is not enough to grab attention. Smith’s job was to say how bad, and where. He needed to say it as early as possible so that people could get word and take cover. But he had to be right, because every time the storm sirens sound and no wolf appears, people grow a bit more complacent. And when the sirens prove to be warranted, complacent people are likely to become injured people, maimed people, dead people.

As the hours ticked away, Smith and the command-center team sifted the data. “There’s no shouting, no panic. It’s like being aboard an aircraft carrier, though we didn’t have the colored shirts,” Smith says. Local news stations beamed images of ominous clouds from their weather helicopters. Professional and amateur storm chasers radioed reports of deteriorating conditions. The Weather Service forecasters narrowed the danger zone to a bull’s-eye stretching across the metropolis of Oklahoma City and south to the university town of Norman, where Smith and his colleagues could watch the sky grow darker through a wall of west-facing windows.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m. C.T., the team had seen enough. Something big was gathering near the Oklahoma City suburbs south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44. Using preformatted text to save precious seconds, they approved the strongest warning the Weather Service can give: a “tornado emergency.” The designation was created by the man who is now Smith’s boss, meteorologist David Andra Jr., during the May 3, 1999 storm that spun up winds in excess of 300 m.p.h. in the town of Moore, Okla.–the highest winds ever recorded. Andra’s designation means simply, “this is not your usual Oklahoma tornado,” says Smith. “This is different; this is deadly.”

Moore is just south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44.

With the press of a “return” key, the warning was issued at 2:40 p.m. The people of Moore had 16 minutes.

Sirens and Decisions

What can you do with 16 minutes?

Kelly Byrne is the mother of two little girls and owner of a small business called Scribbles and Dribbles, makers of cute stuff for babies. When the warning was issued, she was at home in Moore, a fast-growing suburb of some 56,000 residents. Her girls are 4 and 1, and she tries “really hard not to scare them.” But as a lifelong resident of Tornado Alley, she knows the value of vigilance. “Anytime there’s really severe weather, we start preparing, just in case.” To keep the girls calm, she made a game of getting ready. As the weather soured, she suggested that they collect pillows to build a fort in an interior closet. When they finished, the girls nestled in with a tablet computer, unaware of the danger, as Byrne gathered extra clothing and diapers nearby.

All the while, she kept one eye on the TV. When Smith’s warning reached the news stations, the voice from the box grew more urgent. “They said an inside room wasn’t sufficient for this tornado,” Byrne tells TIME. What to do? Her home, like many on the hard clay plains of Oklahoma, had no basement. “So I grabbed my girls and my phone, and we went across to the street to a neighbor who had a shelter.”

By now it was after 2:50 p.m. Welcomed inside the below-ground shelter with scant time to spare, the little family listened as a deafening roar passed over them, headed northeast. Afterward, Byrne emerged to find a ruined world, scented with fumes of leaking gas. “A car that had been sitting in the driveway is now in front of the house turned sideways,” she says. “All the brick is pulled off from one wall. Attic has fallen in on the garage. We have a recliner in our hot tub.”

For Byrne, 16 minutes meant that her girls were not cowering as their home splintered around them.

Tracy Stephen used her 16 minutes to rush from home to Plaza Towers Elementary School, hoping to retrieve her 6-year-old daughter Abigail. But when she arrived, she found the school locked tight. As the time drained away, she hurried to a neighbor’s house with her two younger daughters and climbed into the cellar with just minutes to spare. The home she left behind was obliterated.

Inside those locked school doors, the teachers and staff at Plaza Towers filled their 16 minutes purposefully executing the plans they had rehearsed again and again. Schools built in Moore after the 1999 tornado include safe rooms, but older schools like Plaza Towers and nearby Briarwood Elementary do not. So the students filed into the innermost part of the school, away from the windows, knelt and covered their heads. As the storm hit, courageous teachers and staff shielded the children with their bodies.

When it subsided, Stephen made for the ruins “like a crazy person, running toward the wreckage, wailing,” she said. A mother of a classmate told her that Abigail had been killed in the collapse–a horrific mistake, it turned out, one of many in the tornado’s chaotic aftermath. She found her daughter in a nearby home, wrapped safely in a blanket. The teacher’s aide who had protected Abigail was injured but alive.

Patrick Smith’s 16 minutes were spent gathering his two kids from school and outracing the twister to his rented house on 19th and Moore. “The tornado seemed to chase me all the way,” he recalls. There was just enough time to load the children into the bathtub and hit the deck beside them with a mattress over his head. “I love you,” he called over the racket of debris battering the walls.

When it was over, he ran the two blocks to Plaza Towers Elementary with neighbors in tow. The scene was a human chain of first responders, working together to dig out children and teachers. As they were freed, recalls Sue Ogrocki, a photographer for the Associated Press, they were passed down the row to safety, a fireman at the end of the line handing each one to a thankful parent.

“I couldn’t hear the children,” Ogrocki says, “and every now and then, police or fire would ask people to stay quiet so they could listen for the kids still trapped.”

The kids were trapped under what had been school walls when the bell rang that morning. Adrenaline surging, Smith felt “like Hercules all of a sudden” as he and his neighbors “picked up an entire wall.” Underneath they found “17 kids in the debris that we dug out.” The children were too frightened to look up, he says.

Other children would never look up. Ten children were among the dead, seven of them at Plaza Towers. Six adults are still missing. In all, searchers had found 24 bodies as of May 22 in the scarred trail of the tornado, which was more than a mile wide in some places and had skidded across the south side of Oklahoma City for some 17 miles. On the Enhanced Fujita scale used to classify the strength of cyclones, the storm rated a 5: as high as it goes, with peak winds topping 200 m.p.h. and some buildings stripped to bare foundations.

The cyclone was arbitrary. Within yards of a house in matchsticks, one could find a china cabinet undisturbed, every fragile plate intact. Sweeping up whole lives and dropping the shreds at random, it reminded thousands of people what really mattered. Sam Riojas found himself hunting through the rubble for an old tin box. “My grandfather died in October, which was pretty tough, and I found out that he used to be in the military in Mexico. He didn’t tell anyone in our family. None of us knew. We’re looking for stuff he had collected.” A precious needle in a vast haystack of other people’s memories. “I can’t find it,” he says wearily.

A day later, Kelly Byrne reflects, “If you’ve never been through one, you don’t realize how quickly it happens. We had enough warning. We had a good 15-minute warning, which is an amazing time for a tornado.” Sixteen, to be exact. “But when there are cars flying through the air, and trees and parts of houses, there’s only so much you can do to hide from it.”

Her brother-in-law Mike was at work in Norman when the storm went through. When he reached the place where his home used to be, “I didn’t even really know it was my street,” he says. What he found, in that dismal chaos, was the bedrock truth of the whole awful story, the one fact that every human response must bend to accommodate. “Tornadoes do whatever the hell they want,” he says.

Vulnerable Safety Net

Two years ago, near suppertime on may 22, 2011, a force-5 tornado dropped suddenly on Joplin, Mo., and left at least 158 people dead–more than six times the number of fatalities in Moore. The most important difference between that disaster and this one was the effectiveness of the advance warning.

In sounding the alarm on Monday, Rick Smith relied on a flood of signals unimaginable when President Ulysses Grant founded the Weather Service in 1870. The U.S. has up to 30 satellites at any given moment that spend at least part of their time gazing down on weather patterns. It has 122 Doppler radar systems scattered across the country to look up from the ground. There are 114 climate-data centers to monitor every region of the country. And the computers that process this information were recently upgraded to increase their data-crunching power thirtyfold, at a cost to taxpayers of $25 million.

But this weather-forecasting infrastructure is much more wobbly than it seems, and without attention the whole thing could start to come undone. Last October, in the run-up to Hurricane Sandy, one of the feds’ two vital weather satellites–known as GOES-East–went briefly off-line, effectively blinding the nation’s forecasters when they needed eyes the most. A patch was rigged using a backup satellite and some data from European governments. It happened again two days after the Moore disaster: GOES-East went on the blink. With GOES-West and other U.S. weather satellites also nearing the end of their lifespan, these failures offer a harrowing glimpse of the price we’ll pay if we don’t invest in the next generation of weather-watching technology.

Ramping up the computer power of the Weather Service by 30 times undoubtedly saved lives in Moore and will save many others from storms to come. But it’s not enough. “What we really need is to be 100 times better than what we were,” says atmospheric-sciences professor Cliff Mass of the University of Washington. “We have to do much better.”

The same can be said of the shortage of safe rooms and shelters in Tornado Alley. A combination of environmental factors–from a close-to-the-surface frost line to the red clay soil–make basements expensive to dig in Oklahoma. And while Moore’s city website recommends that residents have protected storm shelters, the municipal code does not require them in homes, businesses or schools–something Moore’s mayor proposed requiring in all new buildings following the tornado. The absence of safe rooms inside area schools has become a flashpoint for parents.

Carrie Long’s home was among the many lost to the surging winds. Her two children, a 13-year-old in middle school and a 14-year-old in high school, rode out the storm inside their schools. “If I’d gotten my kids out and taken them home, they’d be dead,” she said while clutching a garbage bag full of muddy clothes, her eyes welling up. “There’s just nothing left of our home.”

By the time Smith left the office at 11 p.m., jangled and exhausted by the 16-hour, white-knuckle day, he had seen on television the massive manifestation of the “tornado emergency” he had pictured hours earlier. The dark and swirling column flinging debris as it slowly chewed through Moore could just as easily have come through Norman and wrecked his life instead of theirs. Even a weatherman can’t stop or steer a twister. But his team had done the next best thing. They had given the people of Moore 16 precious minutes, and that made it a good day’s work.

Maybe someday it can be 30.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that one child had died at Briarwood Elementary.

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