Chris Curtis, who ran the West Concord Five and Ten in Concord, was in Oklahoma as part of a storm-chasing group. Shortly after he wrote this column about the Oklahoma tornado Monday night, Mr. Curtis died in his sleep, family members said.
From the road in northern Texas. May 20, 2013.
I’m in our chase van driving south on I-35 toward Dallas. We have rooms booked for the night just north of the city and will be pursuing yet another system of severe weather tomorrow (Tuesday) in that area. Today we woke up in Shawnee OK, perhaps a mile or so from where a powerful tornado destroyed dozens of homes and killed two people. Our group leader lives in Shawnee, and his wife was at home and evacuated to a local shelter during the storm. Their home was spared, but tonight in Moore OK many others were not so fortunate.
Moore is next door to Norman OK, which is our ‘base camp’ when we assemble together to chase storms each spring. We have friends there who work in hotels and restaurants we frequent, and others who live in the area. While on the road today we were shocked by the reports that we could only observe in glimpses. We went south, driving right through Moore, this morning; along with hundreds of other storm chasers who all saw the same data and felt that the unpopulated areas well south of Oklahoma City was the smart bet today. A few did decide to stay north, and last we heard many were aiding in search and rescue efforts.
Sunday afternoon I was looking at a very short lived tornado out of my van window touch down perhaps 50 feet from me near Viola, Kansas. It was thrilling, and as always profoundly affecting. Nature humbles us, in ways both beautiful, and horrific.
Today has been about horrific.
It is hard to put into words how we all feel right now; maybe our experience last month in Boston gives me a unique perspective. The first bomb that Monday went off in front of the building where my father used to work, and a few doors down from Old South Church, where my mom was ordained and on many Sundays gave sermons. The car chase that Thursday night ended about a block from the house where I lived as a young boy in Watertown. It was a week of horror, and a week where Boston stood up tall and strong, and showed good in the face of evil.
Tornadoes aren’t evil, they are random acts of nature, but the literal effects can easily be far worse. Moore will now become the only town to ever be hit twice by an EF-5 tornado, and an EF-4 as well, in 1999 and 2003.
As chasers we do more than observe and record some of the extremes of nature. The internet has allowed us to collectively create a large network of trained and experienced people who are available to the National Weather Service both in reporting what we see, and also at times being available to answer questions from them directly. We all use GPS and radar to show our locations and contact information in real time. And even on a day like today, when most of us saw the same data and all made the same wrong guess, a few saw things differently and were there on the ground when this worst possible scenario unfolded. I have no idea tonight if chasers helped report the initial funnel cloud faster than it may have been otherwise, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Even an extra minute can save scores of lives in a situation like that. May of 2012 saw the fewest tornado-related deaths in the US in recorded history. Calm weather had much to do with that, but tornadoes did happen, and chasers were out there on their own dime doing their best to pitch in.
I wish we could do more. Maybe tomorrow we will be in the wrong place at the right time, and have the chance to do our part. I know that any of my many chaser friends feel exactly the same way.