In cars

His frustration stems from TV coverage of the EF3 tornado that swept through sections of Central Oklahoma on May 31. That’s when Morgan urged viewers who couldn’t get underground to a shelter to “leave south Oklahoma City and go south. Do it right now.”

A little later, Morgan repeated that a tornado warning was in effect for all of south Oklahoma City and urged viewers either to get below ground or “get in your car and drive south.”

Wanting to escape the tornado that already had done extensive damage in Canadian County, Hicks; his wife Carri; and their two dogs left their house and drove south, just as Morgan had advised.

It didn’t work out so well.

“Everywhere we went, the tornado went,” Hicks said. “As we were driving down I-35 in north Moore, we hear on the radio that we shouldn’t be on the interstate.”

Then the Hickses jumped to a side road, but still, the tornado appeared to follow their route.

“We were trying to meet friends at one of the OU buildings that had a basement. But instead, we pulled off and parked at a Sonic to get out of the hail,” he said. “At the time, we were in the thick of it. Even on the side roads, you could feel the car rocking. It was not a fun night.”

As the Hickses made their way past Moore, they had a good view of piles of cars that were crushed in the May 20 twister.

Jon Slater

“At the time, I’m thinking this was a bad idea, but I figured Mike Morgan wouldn’t tell us to do something dumb,” he said. “People were looking to him for advice.”

The night of the storms, longtime KWTV Channel 9 meteorologist Gary England was warning people that the last place they want to be during a tornado is in a car.

England told Oklahoma Gazette that Morgan’s advice to flee in vehicles was “dangerous.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have said it,” he said. “It wasn’t smart. You don’t want to be in a car during a tornado. You’ve seen it and I’ve seen it: the damage that can be done to people in cars in a tornado. It wasn’t a flee sort of situation.”

Another TV meteorologist, KOKH Channel 25’s Jon Slater, weighed in on his Facebook page. He wrote that the city’s meteorological community had failed its viewers May 31, prompting people to run “out of their relatively safe houses to take cover in storm drains only to be swept away to their deaths by flash flooding.”

Slater said forecasters had not provided viewers with accurate information as the storm left Canadian County and entered Oklahoma County.

“There was NOT a large tornado on the ground as the storm was moving into OKC,” he wrote. “The threat was still very real, but no need to panic. Still a very scary and severe storm, but all you had to do was stay at home in the normal safe spot and you are fine. Instead chaos and dead people for no reason. The meteorological community as a whole needs to rethink what just happened.”

Gary England

On the social media site Twitter, Morgan’s on-air advice sparked waves of outrage. A few examples:

• @RobynMatthews89: “Mike Morgan and KFOR owe everyone the biggest apology EVER!!!!”
• @ghostpickles: “KFOR meteorologist Mike Morgan potentially put thousands of people in harm’s way by telling them to flee tornadoes.”
• @WxmanTony, a handle belonging to Tony Cristaldi, a Florida-based National Weather Service meteorologist: “Telling people to get in their car and drive away from a tornado is the height of irresponsibility.”

Calls to Morgan and KFOR’s news director were not returned for comment.

Expert advice
Rick Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, said the agency recommends staying out of a vehicle during a tornado. He cautioned that motorists only should drive to a safe location prior to a tornado warning.

“People should not wait until the sirens sound,” he said. “It’s not safe to be in a car during a tornado or a tornado warning. When you get into a car, you are subjecting yourself to many hazards you are not able to predict.”

Smith said the tornado that first struck El Reno created softball-sized hail, 90-mph winds, flash flooding and an “erratic motion” that left even the experts wondering where it would move next.

Being in a car during that time, he said, was a “death trap.”

“If I lived in Loyal, Okla., and I had a few minutes, I could drive five miles to Grandma’s. But you can’t do that in the OKC metro,” Smith said.

Still, he said, much of the traffic on the roads that evening simply could have been the result of people having the May 20 devastation so fresh in their minds.

Storm danage from the May 31 storms
Credit: Shannon Cornman

“You’re scared because of what happened previously, and you don’t want to have to deal with that, so you try to get away,” said Smith. “What happened in Moore is rare. People need to stay in their house, cover up and you’ll be fine. I don’t know what was going through people’s minds.”

‘As responsibly as possible’
At least 18 people died in the May 31 storms, but Smith said the death toll and damage estimate could have been much larger, had the tornado not lifted.

“This was one of the most complicated storms we’ve seen,” he said. “The ingredients changed just enough to take away its energy.”

Among the victims were three seasoned, veteran storm chasers: Tim Samaras; his 24-year-old son, Paul; and their colleague, Carl Young.

The National Weather Service cautioned storm chasers — professional and amateur — to “do so as safely and as responsibly as possible in order to avoid danger for themselves and all those threatened by tornadoes.”

Storm damage in eastern Oklahoma County
Credit: Mark Hancock

Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management (OEM) said she would be hard-pressed to connect Morgan’s comments to the overflow of motorists that were on the interstates before and during the tornado.

“I have no way of knowing why they were there or if they were following the orders of any particular person,” she said.

Still, Cain acknowledged that OEM advises residents to stay in shelter and take cover during a tornado. If residents don’t believe they are safe in their homes, she said they should make alternate plans “early in the day.”

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Tim Farley

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