In the aftermath of Monday’s deadly tornado that ripped through Oklahoma, this week’s new issue of TIME, online today and hitting newsstands and tablets Friday, May 24, is dedicated to covering the devastation that followed the pivotal 16 minutes between when sirens first alerted Moore residents and when the tornado touched down.
Writing about Rick Smith, the warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, TIME chronicles the tense moments before officials issued the alert that would give the public those precious 16 minutes that could mean the difference between life and death.
Yet saying that the weather will be bad on a May afternoon in Tornado Alley is not enough to grab attention. Smith’s job was to say how bad, and where. He needed to say it as early as possible, so that people could get word and take cover. But he had to be right, because every time the storm sirens sound and no wolf appears, people grow a bit more complacent. And when the sirens prove to be warranted, complacent people are likely to become injured people, maimed people, dead people. As the hours ticked away, Smith and the command center team sifted the data. “There’s no shouting, no panic. It’s like being aboard an aircraft carrier, though we didn’t have the colored shirts,” Smith says. Local news stations beamed images of ominous clouds from their weather helicopters. Professional and amateur storm chasers radioed reports of deteriorating conditions. The Weather Service forecasters narrowed the danger zone to a bull’s-eye stretching across the metropolis of Oklahoma City and south to the university town of Norman, where Smith and his colleagues could watch the sky grow darker through a wall of west-facing windows. Shortly after 2:30 p.m. CDT, the team had seen enough. Something big was gathering near the Oklahoma City suburbs south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44. Using pre-formatted text to save precious seconds, they approved the strongest warning the Weather Service can give: a “tornado emergency” was declared. The designation was created by the man who is now Smith’s boss, meteorologist David Andra, during the May 3, 1999 storm that spun up winds in excess of 300 m.p.h. in the town of Moore, OK—the highest winds ever recorded. Andra’s designation means simply, “this is not your usual Oklahoma tornado,” says Smith. “This is different; this is deadly.” Moore is located just south of Interstate 40 and east of I-44.
With the press of a “return” key, the warning was issued at 2:40 p.m. The people of Moore had 16 minutes.
Click here to read the full cover story on the Moore tornado, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe now or purchase a digital access pass.