weather / tornadoes / Midwest

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3 min. | 600 words

On the evening of May 30, 1998, I was laying in bed listening to the local radio. About an hour and a half or so before, I was driving with my dad on South Dakota Highway 37 north towards Huron, South Dakota. We were heading for the dirt track races, but turned around after the races were canceled due to severe weather in the area. That night, the news on the radio was terrifying: the small town of Spencer, South Dakota, which lay just twenty miles from my hometown, had been destroyed by a tornado. The storm was among the most destructive in South Dakota’s history. For the next few weeks I collected every front page story my hometown paper ran about the tornado; I still have those newspapers stored away in a box.

The United States faces more tornadoes than any other country in the world, averaging around 810 every year. The Spencer tornado occurred during one of the worst tornado years on record, which saw 124 recorded tornados.1 Moore, Oklahoma, lies within the heaviest tornado activity in the United States, an area known as Tornado Alley that stretches across the Great Plains. The phrase comes from Air Force meteorologists Major Ernest Fawbush and Captain Robert Miller, who coined the phrase “tornado alley” in 1953 during their research studying severe weather in the central plains.2 Although every state has the potential to experience a tornado, the storms are heaviest in the land between Texas and South Dakota between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the Missouri River to the east.

Historical paths of tornadoes

Growing up on the Plains, severe weather was a common occurrence between the months of May and September. Warm coastal airs blow up from the Gulf of Mexico northward and collide with dry, colder continental air coming from the Rocky Mountains, creating a volatile climate that is the seedbed for supercell thunderstorms. Today’s tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, and the haunting stories and images emerging from reports reminded me of the destructive force of the Spencer tornado. The Spencer tornado clocked wind speeds upwards of 246 miles per hour. Preliminary measurements of the Moore storm measured wind speeds at 199 miles per hour.

Today’s storm was not Moore’s first encounter with strong tornadoes. Thirteen years ago, another intense tornado swept by Moore, with wind speeds peaking at 302 miles per hour. Although wind speeds were lower in today’s storm, the storm’s destructive potential was amplified by its 40-minute presence on the ground; tornadoes are often on the ground only for moments, but today’s mile-wide and long-duration storm tore a deadly path of destruction across Oklahoma. The American West often sees extremes in weather and climate, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Moore, Oklahoma tornado path

My best wishes for safety and recovery go to the city of Moore and the state of Oklahoma. To those injured, I wish speedy recovery; to those lost, my heartfelt condolences.

There are several resources covering the storm and its aftermath:

The Red Cross is accepting donations via text message. You can text REDCROSS to 90999 and you will be billed $10 as a donation. The government of Moore is also posting updates on Facebook.


  1. Note that tornadoes were not rigorously recorded until after 1953. [return]
  2. See John P. Gagan, Alan Gerard, and John Gordon (December 2010) “A historical and statistical comparison of ‘Tornado Alley’ to ‘Dixie Alley’,” National Weather Digest, vol. 34, no. 2, pages 146-155. [PDF] [return]

About

Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.

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