Southborough man, leader of ‘storm chaser’ tours, witnesses Okla. tornado devastation

There are patches around Moore, Okla., where the leaves are still on the trees and the houses are undamaged, and there are swaths where the trees are torn out by the roots and the buildings completely erased, Rich Hamel said.

The 45-year-old storm chaser from Southborough, Mass., spoke from his car this morning, less than an hour after passing through the scar of property damage and grief that cuts through Moore, a suburb to the south of Oklahoma City.

“It pretty much went right through the center of town,” Hamel said. “I know that two elementary schools were destroyed and ... some of the people who died were children there.”

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Hamel is a guide and driver for the Texas-based Silver Linings Tours, which takes groups of people on tornado-watching tours.

Hamel chose not to chase the tornado that swept through Moore on Monday. He was in Joplin, Mo., when a similar storm thundered down on the city in 2011, killing nearly 160 people, and he learned to avoid storms in heavily populated urban areas.

While his tour group was able to keep clear of the Moore storm itself Monday, but their route today forced them through the wreckage.

“There was a railroad bridge on Interstate 44 that looked like someone had grabbed a towel and wrung it out,” he said.

The death toll from the storm has been revised down to around 25 after previous counts placed it at more than 90. But Hamel said that when tornados pass through cities many of the dead are not immediately discovered.

“This will be right up there with Joplin,” he said. “The area of destruction is very similar and I expect the death toll will rise.”

People who aren’t from the Midwest and Plains states can rarely comprehend the pattern of destruction tornados leave behind until they see it for themselves, Hamel said.

“Being from the New England. it’s hard to grasp,” he said. “People are always surprised that the trees get sawed off several feet up or completely de-barked in one area but are fine in another.”

As for the people of Moore, who are familiar with the dark funnel clouds that build in stormy skies this time of year, they are already picking up the debris while they mourn the lives lost, he said.

“The folks I’ve run into often take it as just the way it is,” Hamel said. “They seem very eager to start the recovery.”