Remembering the El Reno Tornado of May 31, 2013

The 2013 tornado is most remembered for the tragic death of storm chaser Tim Samaras

By Ed Oswald

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Reading time: 4 minutes

On May 31, 2013, a tornado struck El Reno, Oklahoma. This tornado was historic because it was the widest tornado and had some of the fastest ground wind speeds ever recorded by mobile radar – 296 mph. The El Reno tornado didn’t cause significant damage, as it passed through mainly rural areas around El Reno and west of Oklahoma City. However, the loss of life, including three experienced storm chasers’ deaths, shocked the meteorological community.

This blog post will take a closer look at the El Reno tornado of May 31, 2013. We will discuss the causes of the tornado and the aftermath of this tragic event.

el reno tornado radar imageImage Credit: American Meteorological Society

What was the El Reno tornado?

On May 31, 2013, an EF3 tornado hit the central Oklahoma town of El Reno. The El Reno tornado was the strongest ever recorded, with wind speeds reaching 296 mph and a record-breaking 2.6-mile width. The tornado was part of a more extensive storm system that had produced several other tornadoes across the Midwest.

There is confusion about why the tornado was only rated an EF3 when the wind speeds measured were greater than EF5. This is because the Enhanced Fujita scale is a damage rating scale and not based on wind observations. Since most of its lifespan was in open fields, there wasn’t enough tornado damage to confirm the El Reno tornado’s radar-measured winds.

What was the size of the El Reno tornado?

According to the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, the 2013 El Reno tornado reached a maximum width of 2.6 miles across, a record that still stands today.

How did the tornado affect El Reno?

The El Reno tornado isn’t known for its damage. That’s because it mainly passed through rural areas outside the town. It is known for its massive record-breaking size, its winds (296 mph — nearly a record for observed ground-level winds), the deaths of four storm chasers, and the panic it caused in the Oklahoma City area.

el reno tornado trackImage Credit: NWS Norman, OK

What happened that caused the El Reno tornado to strike nearby storm chasers?

The El Reno tornado had an erratic path from the beginning, first moving southeast, then east, then suddenly northeast. This erratic movement and its large size made the tornado especially difficult to chase. Investigations after the fact indicate that chasers, including Tim Samaras and The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes, were hit by a smaller tornado that quickly spun up as the chasers were positioning to get a better view of the tornado.

Who was Tim Samaras, and what happened to him during the El Reno tornado?

Among the eight casualties was Tim Samaras, a well-known storm chaser with over two decades of experience and the founder of Twistex. Samaras and his team chased the tornado near El Reno when the tornado suddenly changed direction. Their vehicle was tossed through the air and came to rest in a field a half-mile away. Sadly, Samaras and two crew members were killed in the accident. Samaras was found still inside the car, while his son Paul Samaras and colleague Carl Young were ejected from the vehicle, found a half-mile in opposite directions where the elder Samaras was found.

bettistornadoImage Credit: The Weather Channel

What happened to The Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes in the El Reno tornado?

Mike Bettes was covering the El Reno tornado for The Weather Channel. Around 5:15 pm, he and his team were inside their live vehicle when a large tornado struck. The car was picked up and thrown around by the tornado, eventually landing on its side. All survived the incident, with mostly scrapes and scratches and minor injuries. Both men were rescued by fellow storm chaser Reed Timmer and emergency responders and taken to a hospital. Fortunately, they both survived the ordeal and fully recovered, although Bettes later recalled suffering from PTSD due to the ordeal.

Why was traffic so bad around Oklahoma City the day of the tornado?

The El Reno tornado was part of a large storm system that caused severe weather across the Midwest. It quickly became apparent that the storm was headed for the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Some residents began to panic with news stations in the city, The Weather Channel broadcasting the massive tornado live, and warnings to get out of harm’s way.

Traffic quickly became snarled in and around the city as people tried to get out of the storm’s path. In addition, many schools and businesses closed early as a precautionary measure, adding to the congestion. All these factors made for a perfect storm of traffic problems that left many motorists stranded on the roads. Thankfully, the tornado veered away from the city center, sparing it from the most catastrophic damage, although it briefly passed over Interstate 40 east of El Reno.

How has the El Reno tornado changed storm chasing?

The 2013 El Reno tornado was one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded. While it didn’t cause widespread damage, it took eight people’s lives, including experienced storm chasers. In the wake of the disaster, there was a renewed focus on safety in storm chasing.

While storm chasers still get very close to storms, the deaths of Samaras and others highlighted the risks of the hobby — and many now stay further away from giant twisters to give enough space in case they need to get out of danger. With faster data and better radar apps, technology has also improved, making it easier for chasers to stay out of harm’s way.

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About the Author

Ed Oswald

Ed Oswald has nearly two decades of experience in technology and science journalism, and specializes in weather stations and smart home technology. He's written for Digital Trends, PC World, and TechHive. His work has also appeared in the New York Times. When he isn't writing about gadgets, he enjoys chasing severe weather and winter storms.