May 3, 2019

The 1999 Okla. Tornado Sticks With Us Because It Was Our First Immersive Weather Disaster

Twenty years ago today, a mile-wide tornado touched down in central Oklahoma and forever changed the way Americans viewed severe weather. The F5 tornado was so strong and so destructive that it's served as a benchmark for all tornadoes since. People who otherwise wouldn't pay any mind to the weather, even people who live thousands of miles away from Oklahoma, can usually recall that one storm because it was our nation's first experience with the shock of fully immersing ourselves in the scope and power of a natural disaster.

24/7 news fundamentally changed the way we process emergency situations in faraway places. When we watch a disaster unfold on television or online, we're not watching something that already happened. We're taking in the disaster before we know the outcome. You can flip on any news channel and hear the screams and the gunshots and see the fireballs and the towers fall and monitor live footage from storm chasers who follow so close to the tornado that you can practically see the occupants of newly-destroyed houses getting pelted by their shredded living rooms if you look hard enough.

It's like you're right there as it happens, and that leaves a mark.

The tornado in 1999 turned into a national trauma because we saw it happen live and you could relive the storm from every possible angle. A news helicopter chasing the tornado hovered over leveled homes before the people inside had a chance to crawl out of the debris. Live footage from the ground showed a mile-wide wedge of darkness tearing into neighborhoods like a desk fan through playing cards. A news station's chief meteorologist sternly told viewers that they needed to be underground to survive the storm while the television screen showed neighborhoods so freshly destroyed that the debris hasn't stopped falling from the sky yet.

The Bridge Creek-Moore tornado was a horrific storm that's served as the high water mark for every tornado in the 20 years since that day. It was one of the strongest tornadoes on record and it was one of the deadliest tornadoes ever recorded in Oklahoma. And it was the first time many Americans actually saw what happens when a tornado hits your house rather than just seeing footage and photos of the aftermath. It took the curiosity spawned by the movie Twister three years earlier and made it real and personal. That could really happen. And it's stuck with us for the last two decades.

There had been big natural disasters before. Hurricane Andrew was a seminal moment in hurricane history that you could watch unfold on The Weather Channel. But up to that point, we'd only had piecemeal footage of large-scale natural disasters, and usually well after the fact. Most of the scale-topping tornadoes since the Super Outbreak of 1974 were filmed or photographed from a great distance. At the time, the 1999 tornado was likely was the most documented tornado in history. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of recordings both from a distance and right within the tornado itself.

Every national tragedy sparks those "where were you" conversations. Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot? Where were you when you heard the planes crashed? We don't have to ask that anymore because we're always there now. Modern technology allows us to experience the psychological trauma of every attack or shooting or tornado or hurricane from every angle as it unfolds. The tornado in 1999—occurring at a time when camcorders were ubiquitous, documentaries were a mainstay on cable TV, and right in the middle of the internet boom—was the first of countless tornadoes to have been documented in such fine detail that you can watch it as if you were standing right there.

We've had plenty of tornadoes like this in the last 20 years. The tornado outbreak of April 2011 was documented in frightening detail. The tornado in Joplin, Missouri, just a month later was so ruinous that it leveled every building as far as the eye could see. And there was another EF-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, that left behind similar death and destruction with even greater documentation than the storm 14 years earlier. Those tornadoes are all memorable, but none so memorable for so many people as the F5 tornado that touched down on May 3, 1999. That storm 20 years ago today was our first full experience with this new era of watching the weather. And it was terrifying.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.