TIME weather

Witness the Deadly Tornadoes That Hit Oklahoma

Tornadoes ripped through large portions of Oklahoma on Wednesday, marking the start of tornado season. The storm killed at least one person and left scores with damaged homes and tens of thousands of households with no power

TIME weather

Oklahoma Governor Declares State of Emergency After Deadly Tornadoes

First responders work to free a man from a rubble pile after a round of severe weather hit a trailer park in Sand Springs, Okla., on March 25, 2015.
Matt Barnard—Tulsa World/AP First responders work to free a man from a rubble pile after a round of severe weather hit a trailer park in Sand Springs, Okla., on March 25, 2015.

Tornado season has arrived

Oklahoma’s governor declared a state of emergency for 25 counties Thursday, a day after severe weather whipped through large swathes of state, resulting in one death and widespread power outages.

Governor Mary Fallin announced the declaration in the city of Moore, after touring a stricken elementary school, according to NBC News. No students or staff were injured at the school, which was closed when the tornado hit.

“It’s hard to believe that two years later, we’re back at a Moore public school, surveying damage,” Fallin said. “I am very thankful that this school did not sustain damage during school hours.”

Outside Tulsa, a tornado cut through a mobile home park in the suburbs of Sand Springs Wednesday night, killing at least one person and injuring three others.

“Right now, rescue efforts are continuing and officers are aiding the injured and helping those who need immediate medical care,” Shannon Clark, with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, told CNN. “It’s very tough conditions right now — very touch and go. The conditions my people are working in right now are deplorable at best.”

Further south, near Oklahoma City, officials reported that another tornado touched down outside the town of Moore, overturning vehicles, uprooting trees and injuring at least three people. However, no deaths were reported in the area.

Thousands of Oklahoma residents were without power early Thursday as officials mobilized rescue efforts.

Read next: Doctors Can’t Explain Why People in Kazakhstan Are Falling Asleep For Days

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME natural disaster

See the Worst Natural Disasters of 2014

When it comes to acts of God, 2014 wasn’t a particularly active year. No powerful hurricane struck the U.S. like Sandy in 2012 or Katrina in 2005. There was no singlecatastrophic event like the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed nearly 300,000 people, the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which killed over 200,000, or even the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which disrupted air travel for weeks.

But while there wasn’t a single iconic catastrophe, Mother Earth was still plenty busy in 2014. A volcano in Hawaii, a typhoon in the Philippines, wildfires in California and seven feet of snow in Buffalo—this year has witnessed its share of extreme weather and other natural disasters. The photos that follow are a reminder that when the Earth moves or the heavens strike, the results can be gorgeous to see—provided you’re not caught in the middle.

MORE: The most beautiful wildfire photos you’ll ever see

TIME weather

Tornado Does Damage to Revere, Mass.

“Given the magnitude of the storm, it’s really a miracle that no one sustained more serious injuries,” Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo told the Associated Press.

A storm that swept through the Boston area Sunday night hit the coastal city of about 53,000 people, leaving felled trees, shattered windows and rattled residents.


TIME weather

Suspected Tornado Kills at Least 2 at Virginia Campground

Virginia Storm Tornado
Jay Diem—Eastern Shore News/AP A tractor trailer truck lies on its side in the median of U.S. Route 13 while a fire engine responds to a nearby campground after a severe storm passed through the area, Cheriton, Va, July 24, 2014.

Campers at Cape Charles, Va. have been tweeting photos from the scene

Update 12:11pm

At least two people were killed and 20 injured when a suspected tornado touched down at a Virginia campground Thursday morning, leaving overturned campers and injuries in its wake.

Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the Virginia Police Department, confirmed that the weather event had left two dead. Earlier reports from a local fire department had said there were three fatalities.

“It came in real quick,” Easterville volunteer firefighter Brittney Eder told the AP. “The sky turned jet black.”

At 8:38 am, the National Weather Service tweeted out a tornado warning for the area. The twister hit the Cherrystone Campground, near Cape Charles, shortly before 9 am.

While the weather incident can’t be confirmed as a tornado until a storm survey team has assessed the campgrounds, NWS meteorologist Mike Rusnak says that based on the type of thunderstorm in the area and “from the pictures we’ve seen, we do think it was a tornado.”

Jordan Bertok was on the campgrounds with her family at the time of the storm and has been tweeting pictures of the devastation. “Just lived through a tornado,” she wrote. “Children are missing. People are dead. Trees are down.” Continuing with the message: “This is hell. I’m in hell.”

Betrok’s grandparents went in their car to take cover. They were hospitalized for injuries, although Betrok said that they are “doing well.”

Local media outlet WAVY-TV reported that six ambulances and a mass casualty truck arrived on the scene to assist the injured and help transport them to the hospital. The news source also reports that some boats were flipped in Oyster Bay, although it’s unknown whether they were occupied.

TIME viral

These Stunning Wedding Photos Feature a Tornado as the Backdrop

A cool twist on an otherwise traditional photo shoot

If they saw a funnel cloud looming on the horizon, most people would probably, you know, head somewhere safe to take cover. But Colleen Niska saw it as an opportunity. The Canadian wedding photographer was shooting a young bride and groom in Saskatchewan when they all noticed a tornado forming behind them. Niska decided to use it as a backdrop.

“I’ve dreamed about a day like this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” the photographer wrote on Facebook. “Could NOT wait to post these! Pretty sure this will only happen once in my lifetime!”

“We were a long ways from it and so we weren’t frightened or anything and it wasn’t heading in our direction,” Niska told BuzzFeed. “We were pretty excited as none of us had witnessed a tornado before and thought it was a pretty cool opportunity. I wasn’t going to pass on it!”

TIME Photos

34 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From naked bike rides to twin tornadoes, each photograph will surprise you, as TIME shares the most outrageous images from June 2014

TIME Bizarre

There Is Nothing More Terrifying Than This Mosquito Tornado

This makes a Sharknado seem utterly pleasant

Even if the premise of Sharknado came true, it would be nothing compared to this real life funnel cloud monstrosity made entirely out of mosquitos. It’s a MOSQUITONADO:

Photographer Ana Filipa Scarpa noticed this phenomenon while visiting Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal. Though it looked like a funnel cloud, she realized it was actually a swarm of moving insects.

It was a very high funnel swinging to the left and to the right. I pointed my camera and began shooting before it hit me,” Scarpa told io9. “But the funnel did not move toward me — and I thought it was so strange — so I got into my car and started to drive towards it, and that’s when I realized it was a mosquito twister.”

As she got closer, some mosquitos actually entered her car. She estimated that the swarm extended about 1,000 feet high.

Well, have fun with your lifelong nightmares, everybody.

TIME weather

Watch a Tornado Rip Through North Dakota Workers’ Camp

A video of Monday's storm in McKenzie County gets up and close and personal with the eye of a tornado

Amateur footage out of North Dakota shows what it’s like to get caught in a tornado after one tore through an oil field workers’ camp Monday.

Nine people, including a 15-year-old girl, were sent to the hospital after the tornado passed, the Associated Press reports. McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said the girl, who suffered a head injury and was in intensive care, is expected to survive.

The tornado, a rare event for North Dakota, reached wind speeds of up to 120 miles per hour and destroyed 15 trailers near Watford City.


16 Minutes

Photograph by Alonzo Adams / AP

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

You are getting a free preview of a TIME Magazine article from our archive. Many of our articles are reserved for subscribers only. Want access to more subscriber-only content, click here to subscribe.

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.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com