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                   Friday, September 27, 2013 - 5:22PM CDT

El Reno tornado incident Q & A

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Observing
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With high-profile articles on the El Reno tornado coming out soon, I wanted to post my detailed answers and clarifications to some common questions I have received.

Do you have more information on the El Reno tornado?

I have attempted to publicly post every detail I can regarding this tornado and my encounter, including GPS logs, videos and images. The following are links to everything I have available currently:

Play Video
HD EXPEDITION VIDEO 1: EF5 tornado at close range, El Reno, OK: Watch Video
Play Video
HD DASHCAM VIDEO: Escaping the El Reno EF5 tornado - dashcam/transcript: Watch Video
Play Video
DASHCAM VIDEO: Tornado strike - side camera: Watch Video

El Reno Tornado Documents & Links:
CHASE ACCOUNT: El Reno, OK tornado expedition log, images and links to other observer accounts
TORNADO RATING: Statement on the rating of the May 31, 2103 El Reno, OK tornado
GPS TRACK: GPS log with tornado track overlay (by my brother Matt Robinson)
SPREADSHEET: Event time analysis from cameras - download in Excel, OpenOffice or CSV.

What caused your vehicle's difficulty maintaining speed on Reuter Road?
The short answer is the combination of a.) strong headwinds, b.) the gravel road and c.) traction control. Traction control is an automatic feature of most newer cars, designed to prevent wheel slip that can lead to a loss of control at higher speeds. It detects when a car's tires are beginning to slip under power, then automatically cuts power to the wheels until the tires regain grip. Wheel slip happens all the time when you drive in snow and ice: you hit the gas a little too hard, and your wheels break traction and spin. This can also happen in the rain or on loose gravel.

If you've ever driven a car with traction control in ice and snow, you know that sometimes you have to manually turn it off so the wheels can spin a little and keep you moving. Otherwise, the traction control will not allow the wheels to spin, and you'll just stop moving altogether. This happened to me in a snowstorm last winter from just going up a slight incline into a McDonald's parking lot. My wheels needed to spin a little to keep me moving up the slight gradient, but traction control wouldn't allow it, and I came to a stop despite pressing on the gas. I had to back up, turn off traction control (via a manual override button) and make another run at it.

My car's traction control was continuously kicking in during the escape from the El Reno tornado. Due to the combination of strong headwinds and the gravel road, the wheels were slipping, causing traction control to cut power to the wheels. This limited my speed to a maximum of 43mph. My car's manual override button for the traction control does not work over a speed of 30-35mph, so I could not deactivate it despite repeatedly pressing the button.

Why were you driving such a small, lightweight car?

My Toyota Yaris is my 'daily driver' car. I bought it because gas prices are high, and the Yaris gets nearly 40mpg on the highway. Ideally, I would prefer to cover in a larger vehicle, but it is just not possible for me currently. Like most storm observers, I have to pay for all of my observing expenses out of pocket, the largest of which is fuel. Contrary to myths, most storm observers aren't paid to observe storms aside from occasional video sales. Revenue from the video I sell typically doesn't cover all of my expenses incurred when observing tornadoes in the spring. As such, I can't afford to have a second dedicated chase vehicle, nor can I afford to pay for the fuel required to drive a larger vehicle the long distances typical of an expedition season.
Why did you choose the route you did? Were you trying to get close?
I was not trying to get close. I knew from how the tornado first appeared that it would be very large, violent and dangerous. My goal was simply to remain in a good position for photography and video, which I felt would be best with the tornado backlit by the bright skies to the southwest. I wanted to be just close enough to have a high-contrast view.

My plan was to roughly parallel the tornado to its north as it moved east, while staying slightly ahead of it (to its northeast). I moved the additional mile south (closer to it) at Choctaw because of the tornado's initial rapid movement southward away from me. I expected the tornado to either continue moving east-southeast or eastward, which is why I kept going east on Reuter Road (NW 10th). I saw no reason to go north at Highway 81 because I didn't yet realize the tornado had turned.

I didn't recognize the dramatic change in its track until it was nearly upon me on Reuter west of Highway 81. This is because while the tornado was making its drastic north turn and widening at Highway 81, it was completely wrapped in heavy rain, masking from my vantage point what it was really doing. It is common for a relatively benign area of precipitation to wrap around a tornado when it becomes "rain wrapped", so the proximity of this area of rain itself was not initially a major concern. As I realized later, this area of rain *was* the tornado itself - IE, the outer boundary of tornadic wind speeds completely encompassed the rain. As the area of rain approached Reuter, I could finally begin to see how fast the rain curtains were moving and realized they were embedded in tornadic winds. This area of rain rapidly condensed into the large wedge tornado visible in my rear-facing camera once I cleared Evans Road.

Below is a map I put together that shows my path, the tornado's path, and what I *thought* the tornado was doing and was going to do in the future. As you can see, if the tornado had moved like I expected (more easterly), I would have remained at a safe viewing angle on Reuter Road. (Click on this map to view a larger version):

Why did you stop after escaping the tornado?
I stopped when I exited the heavy rain curtains and I could see that I was out of the tornado's path. I'm a storm observer, so I wanted to see the tornado and get pictures and video of it. Every spring, I drive thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to get to tornadoes, so I won't drive away once I catch one.
Why did you get out of your car?
Again, I'm a storm observer, so I wanted to see the tornado and get pictures and video of it. My mistake with El Reno was underestimating the wind fields surrounding the visible condensation funnel of a tornado of such magnitude. According to mobile doppler radars, I was still inside the primary tornado circulation when I got out of my car. I was not aware of this at the time. While tornadic winds often extend out some distance from a tornado's visible funnel, the El Reno tornado was remarkably strong and broad in this regard.

Either way, I should have taken into consideration the likelihood of at least violent RFD (rear-flank downdraft) winds wrapping around the back side of such an obviously powerful tornado. In retrospect, I should have stayed in the car and moved farther east and south before trying to get more video and pictures.

I am not a risk-taker and have no desire to get hurt or damage my car. Regularly doing so would make storm observing more expensive than it already is, and unaffordable for me. Not to mention the fact that damage and injuries ends an expedition on the spot, and potentially puts me out of commission for additional storm observation days. I paid for the damage to my car and equipment out of my own pocket and did not file an insurance claim.

Did you see the Twistex vehicle?
I did not see their vehicle during the event. I did not learn that I had been on the same road until 3 days later, after I had arrived home. I then discovered that the rear-facing dash camera I installed in my car had captured the images.
Was observer traffic a factor in this incident?
Chaser traffic was not a factor in this incident. When the Twistex vehicle and I crossed Highway 81, there were no other cars ahead or behind us for at least a mile in front and 1/2 mile behind. There were no vehicles on Highway 81 in either northbound or southbound lanes. Police had the southbound lanes blocked to our north, and the tornado was crossing the road to the south, blocking the northbound lanes.
Is there more video from the rear-facing camera?
This is the most frequent question I have received. Yes, the rear-facing dash camera was recording during the entire event. What it captured is not graphic, but it does show the sequence of events that transpired. I have elected to keep this part of the footage private out of respect to the families affected by the tragedy. The footage from the rear camera in its entirety may be released at a future time. Until then, it is being kept strictly private.

For media interests reading this: due to some disconcerting behavior by those seeking out this footage for commerical interests, I've set up some ground rules regarding this footage:

  1. The families are not to be contacted regarding this footage, I (Dan Robinson) am the copyright holder, I am the sole contact, and I am the only one who can authorize a license for its use or broadcast anywhere.
     
  2. Any individual, group, company or filmmaker who contacts the families in disregard for this stipulation (seeking to persuade the families to allow its release) will be permanently disqualified from receiving a license for its use, even if the time comes that the families approve its release*.
     
  3. All of my El Reno footage has been registered with the US Copyright Office. If any of the footage is released/broadcast/used without authorization, I will, to put it lightly, go 'nuclear' with the most aggressive Federal copyright infringement lawsuit possible.
To put it another way, please respect the families and leave them alone about my car's rear camera video. You are free to contact me with any questions about the video at any time.
Did you know Tim, Paul and Carl?
Although I was not close friends with Tim, Paul or Carl, I have been mutually acquainted with Tim for many years, particularly via internet discussions. I have only met him in person a few times, most frequently at the Denver Storm Observing conventions. We have been members of several storm observing discussion groups through the years, and were friends on Facebook. I have always been primarily a lightning photographer, an interest that Tim and I shared. His work with high-speed lightning video was of particular interest and admiration by me.
Will El Reno change how you go?
In some cases, yes. I will no longer attempt intercepts of large or rain-wrapped tornadoes within 2 miles. There is no benefit to being close to a large wedge tornado that can even come close to balancing the risks. My strategy for very volatile-parameter days will also be less agressive and less close-range.

Having said all of that, we have to keep this event, while certainly tragic and a 'wake up call' to storm observing, in proper perspective. This was the first such incident in the history of storm observing, an activity that is 50 years old. The El Reno tornado was exceptionally rare in many respects, fooling many experienced and veteran storm observers. Tragic incidents happen on a regular basis in sports such as whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, skiing and skydiving - all activities that pose much greater risks than storm observing, yet few would advocate curtailing or ceasing participation in any of those sports as a result. The rational thing to do is learn from the tragedies so as to continue to enjoy the activities with an even greater degree of safety.

So, El Reno will certainly change how I approach large and low-visibility tornadoes. But when such opportunities present themselves, I will continue to make reasonably close approaches to the smaller, slow-moving highly-visible tornadoes - a maneuver which is generally very safe if done with proper attention to road options and storm behavior.

What is your opinion on the official rating of the El Reno tornado?
This tornado was unquestionably an EF-5 tornado, with EF-5 winds measured by two independent mobile doppler radar units. The EF-3 rating was a beaurocratic decision by NWS management that will eventually be revised. The top tornado scientists in the world today (like Dr. Howie Bluestien and Dr. Chuck Doswell) strongly disagree with the NWS decision. I went into this controversy in more detail in another blog post.

Please let me know if you have additional questions, and I will do my best to answer them on this page. All of the other information and data I have on the El Reno tornado is posted on the main expedition account page for the event.

Hello dan, I wanted to ask respectfully if the rear dash video is going to be released ? Hope you are doing very well. Thanks :)
- Posted by Seth from Atl
Hi Seth, I added some more information to that section of the FAQ. Currently there are no plans to release that footage.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
Thanks dan, be safe during the upcoming tornado season
- Posted by Seth from Atl
Is the reason that you're not releasing the rear video because there's footage of Samaras' vehicle coming in direct contact with the tornado? I'm an admirer of your work, and I've seen screen grabs of their vehicle in the National Geographic issue that chronicles the El Reno tornado.
- Posted by Chris
Is the reason that you're not releasing the rear video because there's footage of Samaras' vehicle coming in direct contact with the tornado? I'm an admirer of your work, and I've seen screen grabs of their vehicle in the National Geographic issue that chronicles the El Reno tornado.
- Posted by Chris
Good information. And I think Dan's decision to hold back the rear-facing camera footage is highly moral and respectful to the families of the Twistex team. The still frame in the National Geographic article by itself comes across as a heartbreaking portrait of the team's losing struggle before being overtaken. Dan himself is lucky to be alive! Storm observer Skip Talbot has already put together a highly informative YouTube video, Safety Lessons From El Reno. ...Safe expeditions to you, Dan, and to all.
- Posted by Kendal Stitzel from Fort Collins, CO
A highly thoughtful and respectful reflection upon your experience combined with the situation. I have greater respect for you now than when I first watched your first video - you have TAUGHT me. Thank you, and safe observing to you.
- Posted by Frank
Have you ever issued a license for use to anyone, ever, concerning the video of the last moments of the twistex crew?
- Posted by kdev
Kdev, no. National Geographic used two stills from the video in their November 2013 story that showed the car headlights just after Highway 81. No video between Highway 81 to Evans Road has been released other than the still image in the National Geographic story.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL
Even after a year, I can't understand WHY people want to see rear facing camera. They lost their lives and although people want to see "How it happened" Just know that a great respected group of "expeditioners" lost their lives. We all know how, leave it at that. Much respect to Dan for holding it back. I'm certified with Skywarn (since 2007) and yes the community lost great respected guys.
- Posted by Colorado Raven from Denver
Your intentions are honorable, regarding the privacy of the families and the release of the rear facing camera footage. I think it speaks a lot about our nation and the disregard for humanity and compassion for others. Honestly, WHY are people so interested in seeing those three men lose their battle, so swiftly and so brutally. It makes me wonder. It just really makes me wonder about our future as a nation - there is very little compassion and respect left.
- Posted by Steve
Hello Dan, do you have any opinions why did the Twistex team got slowed down considerably behind you? I would be interested in some information that the rear facing camera might have, but only for educational purposes. Me and my father go to US to chase tornadoes every year and we've done 60+mph on country roads of similar quality to Reuter Road when manoeuvring around mesocyclones. I understand the difficulty with traction control, we keep it off on country roads as it made us get stuck on a hail covered hilly country road in Wyoming earlier this year. What I am trying to figure out of the information available on the internet is why did the Twistex team slow down? I assume they didn't know, like you, about the change in the direction of propagation of the tornado until seeing it amidst the approaching rain curtains. I'm not sure how far behind you were they after passing Hwy 81 and when the first rain and wind arrived from the south, but based on your video, although the conditions were very difficult, it would have been possible for them to drive at least at the same speed as you did unless something happened to slow them down so much. Initially I thought they either may have got stuck or that traction control may have been the cause, but based on your video the quality of the road is too good to get stuck and since you were also having traction control trouble, there must have been something additional that happened to them. Winds and rain under a mesocyclone can be very localised, so I think that the most likely cause was that one of the bursts of wind and rain that you drove through was worse and longer lasting just behind and that was the critical time they lost before further rain and wind overtook them. But there may have been other causes, such as a branch or a hailstone cracking their windscreen, reducing visibility considerably or an object hitting their wiper blades, braking them and making it impossible to see in the heavy rain. But these are just random thoughts of what might have happened and the actual rear cam video might not hold the answer, but if you thought of what might have been the real cause of their slow down, it could be very educational for all the "aggressive expeditioners" who try to take close-up images of tornadoes and it may give some guidance into improving our chase vehicle to make it safer for next season, which would include hail guards and possibly a rotational wiper blade we're trying to develop for better visibility in heavy rain high-wind situations. Thanks.
- Posted by Miroslav from Bradford, UK

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