16 Minutes

For the people of Moore, Okla., that was the difference between life and death

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Photograph by Alonzo Adams / AP

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.

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