Two of them were a little girl and her mother. Police scanners and local news report that they were ejected from their car and thrown into a wooded area after a large tornado crossed a highway west of Oklahoma City. The father and children were frantically looking for the lost mother and sister when an officer found their lifeless bodies among the trees. The police asked the family to step back and not look towards the area while ambulances were called in to transport the bodies. The three other people (we know of at this point) who died in today's tornadoes also died in their vehicles.
Cars are the worst place to be in a tornado. Seriously. You're better off in your one story brick house than you are in a car. Even SUVs aren't any protection from tornadoes. For the last couple of years, The Weather Channel sends a few on-camera meteorologists and camera crews out to the midwest to chase storms to get great footage and boost ratings. These meteorologists -- yes, actual meteorologists who are trained to chase tornadoes -- have been getting uncomfortably close to these storms lately.
The Weather Channel's Mike Bettes was first on the scene in Joplin, Missouri, just minutes after the mile-wide EF-5 tore through the south side of town and killed over 150 people. Mike Bettes was also one of the first on the scene in Moore, Oklahoma last week when the EF-5 tornado ripped a hole through the middle of this town of 45,000.
Mike Bettes also had his hands torn to shit this afternoon when the SUV he was riding in sustained a direct hit from a tornado, flipping over 10+ times and ultimately landing 200 yards away from the road in an open field.
This kind of daredevilry gives the illusion that chasing storms is safe if only you keep your distance and watch like a large-scale theater production. Storm spotters save lives. Meteorologists knew the severity of the Moore tornado before it hit because of the work of storm spotters (several of whom were even in news helicopters).
But eclipsing this life-saving work is also the human need to see drama and violence. Disaster porn, as it's called, is a huge ratings grab for TV stations and websites alike.
Storm spotter sensationalism needs to stop. Mike Bettes and his crew should have died today. Look at their car. The Weather Channel is one of the prime culprits for turning weather information and education into entertainment. There's a valid argument for combining entertainment and information to achieve a goal, but that only works to an extent. The Weather Channel lost their train of thought years ago. It's all entertainment now. They've taken the life-saving work of actual storm spotters and turned it into a spectacle of ratings goodness.
Mike Bettes and his crew stopped on a highway today to shoot a live segment on The Weather Channel, using the very tornado that obliterated them as a backdrop. If they hadn't stopped to do a two minute stint with a violent tornado behind them, they may very well have escaped the thing. They're lucky they're not dead. And, for what? A live shot on national teevee.
KFOR is the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. During the Moore tornado, the KFOR helicopter saw how massive the storm was and kept a live image up on their channel from formation to dissipation. The meteorologists back in the studio (and in the National Weather Service) saw this live footage and formulated warnings accordingly. The phrase "you will die if you are not underground" is commonplace in tornado-prone areas. We have eyes all over the place. We can instantly tweet a picture of a tornado that just 20 years ago we wouldn't have known was there until someone reported damage.
The on-air personalities at KFOR also urged people in Moore to hop in their cars and head south if they had no way to ride out the storm in an underground shelter. They echoed this advice tonight.
Meteorologists, news media, and weather weenies: Stop telling people to outrun tornadoes in their car. You can and likely will get someone killed one day.
We don't know if the (as of now) five deceased Oklahomans were fleeing the tornado or just had the misfortune of being in the wrong place and the right time. However, we do know that there were tens of thousands of people trying to flee the Oklahoma City metro area tonight thanks to helicopter footage of the storms as they approached the city. For tens of miles, traffic on I-35 south out of OKC was backed up. It was a sea of headlights. People saw the storms coming and hopped in their car to try to flee south.
They didn't flee the storm. They drove a few miles, stopped dead on the highway, and hurricane-force winds pummeled them. There may have been some tornadoes wrapped in the 90-100 MPH straight-line winds.
They were relatively lucky.
What if the mile-wide tornado had stayed intact and swept across the highway? All those people fleeing the safety of their homes would have driven into the violent death they wanted to avoid.
People need to stop fleeing tornadoes by vehicle. If you live in a home you feel isn't suitable to protect you from a tornado, go to a building that you think could withstand such a storm. Knock on a neighbor's door. Go visit a local business. Ask if you can ride out the storm with them. People don't all suck -- most will say yes. Don't just hop in your car and flee the area. You can do that in a hurricane because you have 36+ hours. In a tornado, you're lucky if you have 36 minutes.
If you're already in your car when a tornado hits, you have two options. The safest is to drive to the nearest sturdy building and ask if you can come inside and seek shelter with its occupants. Like I said above, you'd be surprised with how nice people can be in a disaster. Outrunning a tornado by car is a very risky proposition, but if you're already in your car and it's really your only option, be smart about it. Drive perpendicular to the tornado's path if possible. Follow traffic laws, too. You don't want to cause an accident.
Mike Bettes and his Weather Channel crew found that out today. The five people who died tonight prove that fact. I-35 was a parking lot for two dozen miles because of thousands of people trying to flee a tornado. If it had crossed the highway, the death toll would be nearing triple digits. Firefighters would be scraping dead bodies off the pavement that are only there because they wanted to prevent having to wear a toe tag at the end of the day.
Do not try to outrun a tornado by car.