Tornadoes and floods beset the heartland

June 3, 2013

When a killer tornado struck the El Reno, Okla., campus of the Canadian Valley Technology Center, students and staff of the institution that includes among its offerings an aviation maintenance program took shelter in a safe room. There they rode out the storm as it destroyed their school building and tossed aircraft.

Weeks of severe spring weather had already afflicted a large swath of the heartland. Flood waters from heavy rains neared a crest along the Mississippi River near St. Louis, submerging two runways of a general aviation airport north of the city. The river was expected to reach its highest point on June 5 as thousands of people remained without power from the violent rainstorms.

‘They were very lucky’

The tornado struck El Reno, west of Oklahoma City, about 6:30 p.m. on May 31. It was later reported to be the second EF5 tornado to hit the area in May and, at 2.6-miles wide, the largest ever recorded, according to The Weather Channel. Its force tossed two aircraft outside the destroyed technology center building, and left two others entangled in debris, said Greg Winters, Canadian Valley Technology Center’s superintendent.

Thankfully, the building occupants were all safe. “The procedures worked like they’re supposed to,” he said.

As a new week dawned, Winters was already hard at work trying to figure out where the aviation mechanics training program and 18 others courses would be housed when school starts again in August at Canadian Valley Technology Center’s three campuses.

The tornado that devastated the center’s El Reno facility largely spared the El Reno airport, said Harve Allen, communications director of the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission after surveying damage at airports in the Oklahoma City area. An unexpected turn from the tornado’s straight path was the only reason the airport did not take a direct hit, he said, adding, “They were very lucky.”

Others weren’t so fortunate. News media reported that among those who lost their lives in the El Reno tornado were TV storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son, and a colleague.

Allen and his brother watched from his mother-in-law’s home nearby, as the tornado made its unexpected veer, while the family prepared to take shelter in a safe room if it became necessary.

Minor roof damage to some older buildings and a door blown off its rollers were the only damage observed by Chuck Guantlett, AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer at El Reno. Three aircraft tied down outside rode out the storm and emerged undamaged, he said.

At Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, officials reported some roof damage and some flooding in a baggage claim area. The city opened an outreach office for residents affected by the tornado outbreak.

Just south of Oklahoma City, in Goldsby, Okla.—where a tornado ripped the roof off a hangar two years ago—the airport fared better this time.

“We got by pretty good, no problem,” said Ronny Nelson, manager of the David Jay Perry Airport in Goldsby. In an irony, he added that the hangar that lost its roof in 2011 was now being torn down to make way for a parallel taxiway as part of a runway construction project.

Nelson awaited updates on how other airports had managed through the storms that had brought death and devastation to areas of Moore, Okla., on May 20, then reignited last week. He noted that “local guys” were among the workers installing underground fiber-optic cables near El Reno to replace downed power lines.

The Mississippi rises

As severe spring weather took its toll on the region, both runways at the St. Charles County Smartt Airport in St. Charles, Mo., were submerged beneath flood waters from the over-the-banks Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

“This type of flooding comes all the way down from Minnesota,” explained Tracy Smith, the airport manager. He predicted two weeks of cleanup would be needed before airport operations could be restored completely to normal. Local aircraft had been flown out ahead of the rains or safely positioned on dry portions of the airport.

The Associated Press reported that communities in southwestern Illinois might face rising Mississippi River waters of approximately 34 feet above flood stage—still several feet lower than a record set in 1993.

In Oklahoma, some areas now faced the problem of saturated ground, while elsewhere in the state, drought conditions endured, said Allen—a “weather aficionado” who wasn’t about to let his guard down.

“Tomorrow there’s another chance of severe weather, but not like Friday, or like May 20,” he said.

“But it’s like lightning striking twice. We don’t want to have it happen again.”