Tornado predicted hours before it formed in Elk City

ELK CITY, OKLAHOMA (KAUZ) - A new weather forecast model was able to predict the May 16, 2017, Elk City Tornado hours in advance.

Patrick Skinner and research scientist at the University of Oklahoma and the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma helped developed the Warn-on-Forecast Experimental Model.

"This is part of a decade long project at NOAA to issue guidance to forecasters for individual thunderstorms and their hazards on a short term scale so from approximately one to three hours," Skinner said.

Using current radar data and modeling only three hours out they are working to provide a reliable computer model for the short term forecast during severe weather events.

"Eventually this is envisioned as sort of an on demand service where we can produce rapidly updating forecasts for areas where we expect thunderstorms anywhere across the continental United States on any given day but that is well off into the future," Skinner said.

The model is still in the testing phase.

"We're not sure on when it may be available full time. I can say we're running it daily now during the thunderstorm season as part of an experiment," Skinner said.

Throughout this year and next year, they will spend time looking at the data and determining how to improve the model.

"We'd like to issue probabilistic guidance that helps them have more confidence in the threats of these thunderstorms," Skinner said.

On May 16, the operational meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Norman were able to do just that.

They used the model for the first time in their severe weather forecast. Rick Smith, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service Norman Forecast Office says this model gave them more confidence in their forecast.

"We started to see very consistent persistent signals that there would be these isolated super cell thunderstorms. These rotating thunderstorms that most often produce the bad tornadoes you see around here," Smith said.

The confidence lead them to issue a statement in between the watch that is several hours ahead of the storms and the warning that is typically issued minutes ahead of the storm.

"It was a high probability that we'd be seeing tornado warnings in the next couple of hours," Smith said.

The statement was issued two hours ahead of the storm for the specific area. Allowing emergency managers and public safety agencies for four counties in western Oklahoma, including Beckham County, extra time to get ready.

"They were on high alert and ready to go, and in fact, they were able to sound their sirens. I think up to 30 minutes maybe a little bit more than that for the city of Elk City that gave people there lots of time to get ready," Smith said.

The early statement is targeted to large public areas like hospitals or sporting arenas to allow people more time to find the proper shelter. The early tornado siren warning allowed everyone extra time to take shelter just before an EF-2 Tornado tracked right through the town.

"Having been on the ground the next morning and looking at the damage, it's always amazing that we have that much damage to residential areas," Smith said.  "While one fatality is one too many, to only have one fatality is amazing and that is a testament that something worked. The warning system worked. The sirens worked and part of it was because of this advance information that we were providing."

"Eventually this is envisioned as sort of an on demand service where we can produce rapidly updating forecasts for areas where we expect thunderstorms anywhere across the continental United States on any given day but that is well off into the future," Skinner said.

This was the first time operational meteorologists were able to use the new technology researchers had been working on.

"This is really getting the research information right into operation and getting that information right into the hands of people that can really make life saving decisions with it. And that's really what all of us our here for. Is to do that," Smith said

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