We had to pick up a canoe in Fort Smith, AR, and the pick-up was originally scheduled for Tuesday, May 27. It was forecast that an outbreak of possibly severe weather could occur Tuesday and Wednesday, the 28th of May. We contacted the builder and informed him we couldn’t risk making the trip because of the severe weather potential. The two day weather event then turned to three, four, and then five days, but we planned on making the trip yesterday, Friday, the 31st. The round trip to Fort Smith and back was 564.6 miles, so it would be an eleven hour trip. I felt the only way to make the trip safely was to start early enough to get back home before the afternoon warming sent the storms vertical and produced severe weather. If we started from home at 4 a.m., we could make it back by 3 p.m., about the latest that could reasonably put the odds for safety in our favor.
I had set the alarm for 3:30, but awoke at 2:30, and heard Jean stir. I asked if she was awake, and she was, so I said, “I won’t get any more sleep in another hour, so how do you feel about getting started?” We got up, grabbed a bite to eat, made coffee to carry with us, and were on the road by 3:30.
The wind was still blowing like crazy, or about 25 to 30mph. I know that’s not really crazy wind, but after a solid week of 25 to 40 mph winds, it really begins to play on the nerves. I was heartened by a star-dazzled cloudless sky. We got to I-40 and headed east for Oklahoma City, stopped for gas at the Flying J on Mustang Road, restocked on bear claws and coffee, and pressed on.
Once east of Oklahoma City, we began seeing the first clouds, but it quickly filled in to turn the sky black. The sky looked like it had been plowed, with the furrows running south to north. The clouds streamed north in ribbons. We’ve had experience with dozens of hurricanes, and I said, “ Look at those clouds. They look every bit like hurricane bands.” “That’s exactly what I was sitting here thinking,” she answered. I said, “That has to be the hot humid air feeding in from the Gulf. By this afternoon, that will be feeding the storms.” It was still dark, but the temperature had gone up ten degrees since we had left the house.
We traveled under this blanket of 10/10 cloud cover for about a hundred miles. The clouds did lighten in color some as the sun continued to rise. East of this hundred mile cloud stream the clouds began to thin and break up, and by the time we reached Fort Smith, it was sunny. Without wasting any time, we got the canoe secured on the roof of the truck, and prepared to head back west. Between dealing with the canoe, gassing the truck, and getting a bite to eat, we had passed back across the Arkansas River with only a loss of 45 minutes.
Once we had gone west enough to get back under the cloud cover, it continued to build all morning and afternoon. We got back home at 2:25 p.m., after a run of 10 hrs. 55 min. The plan had worked. As soon as we got the canoe unloaded, we went in and turned on the TV to learn that the weather service had issued a PDS warning (particularly dangerous situation). We had just made it. The meteorologist reported that storms were already going vertical, and that all storm parameters were “at the top of the charts,” and that “the cap could break in minutes.”
They are reporting three tornadoes in the Oklahoma City metro, but there were others. The first tornado touched down right where we had exited off of I-40 a couple hours before. Nine people have been reported killed so far, about 50 injured enough to require hospital treatment, some 15 are still hospitalized in critical condition, six tractor trailers flipped as the storm moved through El Reno, many cars were flipped and thrown off the highway. Of the nine fatalities, only two have been identified so far. Since many of those deaths were right along I-40, the people could be from almost anywhere. One vehicle that was rolled and thrown off the highway was a storm chaser from The Weather Channel. It was destroyed, but the crew got out okay. One SUV was flipped off the highway and pancaked when it landed on its roof. The young mother and infant were apparently not restrained in the vehicle, and were sucked from it and killed. Her husband and a son were in another vehicle, so she and the baby are the only two identified as of this time. There was eight inches of rain in El Reno, and 11 inches in Yukon, that created flash flooding. The Oklahoma City Fire Department had dispatched a boat and dive team to rescue one man, but the boat flipped dumping all the firemen into the water, so then the rescuers needed to be rescued. This morning there are 103,916 electric customers without power.