Record El Reno, Okla. tornado declared wider than Downtown Seattle
NORMAN, Okla. -- Dear Mother Nature: Oklahoma has suffered enough.
It was enough to bring a devastating EF-5 tornado to Moore in mid May. But to bring a second EF-5 tornado to the same general area 11 days later puts these events into the realm of incredible statistical improbability.
In a record no one wanted to have any part of, the National Weather Service announced Tuesday that the deadly tornado that struck El Reno was not only a top-of-the-rung EF-5 rating, but was also an unbelievable 2.6 miles wide -- making it the widest tornado ever recorded in American history.
To put that into Seattle perspective, 2.6 miles is slightly farther than the distance between the Space Needle and Safeco Field -- in other words, if that tornado were here moving west to east, it would have engulfed the entire Downtown Seattle area.
The weather service initially rated the Friday tornado that hit El Reno as an EF3. But the agency upgraded the ranking after surveying damage from the twister, which along with subsequent flooding killed 18 people. The weather service determined that the storm packed winds reaching 295 mph.
The update means the Oklahoma City area has seen two of the extremely rare EF5 tornadoes in only 11 days. The other hit Moore, a city about 25 miles away from El Reno, on May 20, killing 24 people and causing widespread damage.
But Friday's massive tornado avoided the highly populated areas near and around Oklahoma City, and forecasters said that likely saved lives. When the winds were at their most powerful, no structures were nearby, said Rick Smith, chief warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service's office in Norman.
"Any house would have been completely swept clean on the foundation. That's just my speculation," Smith said. "We're looking at extremes ... in the rare EF5 category. This in the super rare category because we don't deal with things like this often."
The EF5 storm that hit Moore decimated neighborhoods. In Friday's storm, many of the deaths were caused by heavy flash flooding following the storms. Three storm chasers died in that storm.
Smith said the storm's 2.6-mile path - besting a record set in 2004 in Hallam, Neb. - would have made the storm hard to recognize up close.
"A two and a half mile wide tornado would not look like a tornado to a lot of people," Smith said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report