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Strong tornadoes were absent from the High Plains in May, much to the relief of residents

Near record-quiet month followed the second-most active April

A weak tornado touched down briefly near Holly, Colo., on Thursday. (Matthew Cappucci/The Washington Post)

When Jim Lihue watched the morning weather report in Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, on Thursday, he couldn’t help but chuckle. He laughed in surprise — and cautious relief — that the month of May was almost over.

For most people, May is just another month of spring, a cheerful time when the days grow long and the weather gets warmer. But for much of the central United States, May is a time to hold one’s breath as the elements wage war above them. The Plains are an atmospheric battleground, and the residents who live there are routinely caught in the crossfire.

No place is that more true than in Moore, home to about 60,000. Lihue’s an associate pastor at the Emmaus Baptist Church there and has experienced more than his fair share of storms.

But this May has been remarkably quiet when it comes to tornadoes on the Plains, the typical barrages of twisters that routinely target areas between Texas and Nebraska during the month failing to materialize. It has left many meteorologists scratching their heads, while residents of the spared communities breathe relief as the month draws to a close.

A welcome rest for the weary

May has historically been a tumultuous month for Lihue and millions of others in the central United States. A resident of the greater Oklahoma City area for 27 years, Lihue says it’s nearly impossible to live in the Sooner State and not have had some close calls over the years.

“We’ve been through the ’99 tornado, then we’ve had some other ones, and then another bad one came through in 2013,” he said. Both of those tornadoes were EF5 or equivalent beasts on the Enhanced Fujita scale, killing a combined 60 people and scouring some neighborhoods until they were virtually bare.

His family’s home was in the path of the May 3, 1999, tornado; the monster 2013 funnel passed just a quarter mile to the south.

An F2 tornado hit the city in 1998, an F3 in 2003, an EF4 in 2010, and an EF2 in 2015. At least 17 other tornadoes have struck the city since 1890, with dozens of others probably touching down at times when record-keeping was spotty.

But this year, the city hasn’t been under a single tornado warning, a streak residents hope continues.

“I was shocked just this morning when I heard from our local weatherman that this season has been so inactive,” Lihue said in an interview Thursday.

A quiet May: By the numbers

After the second most active April for tornadoes on record, May has been extraordinarily quiet. Barely 100 twisters have spun up during a month that averages closer to three times that. The last week of the month — typically among the busiest stretches of the year — has been virtually silent.

Last month was the second-most active April for tornadoes

It’s the first time on record the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, located in Norman, Okla., hasn’t had to break out its top tier “moderate” or “high risk” categories for a severe storm outbreak. Not a single violent tornado occurred during May, despite five having spun up already this year. In fact, preliminary reports show all but two of May’s tornadoes were on the low end of the spectrum.

All told, this May is shaping up to be among the least active in at least four decades, when only 88 tornadoes occurred during May 1980. There’s a good chance May 2020 winds up with fewer than 110 tornadoes, depending on how many of the preliminary reports are confirmed after filtering out any duplicate reports; 136 preliminary tornado reports were received through May 29.

This compares with the May average of 270 twisters across the country, many of them concentrated in the Plains.

The lack of tornadoes is welcome news for millions of residents in the Plains and the Midwest, where most years feature swarms of funnel clouds rolling across the landscape like clockwork. Storm chasers, on the other hand, haven’t been so happy with this uneventful month.

Others wonder whether the ominous calm could foreshadow an uptick come June.

No significant tornadoes on the Plains

Tornadoes that did form during May came not in droves but in a trickle and far removed from the Plains.

A few weak tornadoes briefly danced in Missouri and Tennessee on May 3 and 4, with an EF2 twister tracking for 14 miles near Lancaster, S.C., on May 5. It was one of only two significant tornadoes that developed during the month, meaning it had winds greater than 110 mph.

In fact, the only other significant tornado of the month — an EF3 that killed one person — occurred near Church Point, La.

That’s a testament to the sparsity of tornadoes that did occur in the Plains but also alludes to the fact that many of the tornadoes that did hit there missed population centers altogether. Several twisters — such as the one near Bowie, Tex., on May 22, or the elephant trunk funnel that touched down south of Post, Tex., the next day — occurred primarily over open landscapes. If they don’t cause damage, they can’t be rated higher than an EF0 or an EFU, for “unknown.”

Stephanie Miller, an English professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says she has been “uncharacteristically unstressed” during the severe weather hiatus.

“It has been quiet. I don’t think we’ve had any warnings here in Stillwater,” she recounted. “Certainly I know that people expect there to be storms and to get some warnings. ”

In 2020, the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., has issued only 29 tornado warnings across its county warning area. By this time last year, 98 such warnings had been issued.

Dramatic supercells awe storm chasers in Kansas

Flipping a switch after April

The May hiatus comes in stark contrast with April, which featured 351 preliminary reports of tornadoes. That would put it just behind April 2011 for the second-most active April on record dating to 1950, when reliable tornado records began.

This April featured three high-end tornado outbreaks that spawned tornadoes by the dozen. First came the Easter weekend outbreak on April 12 and 13, which yielded 140 tornadoes. Two of them were EF4s, including a 2.25-mile-wide deadly monster in Soso, Miss., that became the United States’s third-largest tornado on record.

2.25 mile wide Mississippi tornado was nation's third widest on record

Additional tornado outbreaks came a week later, and again from April 22 to 23, both of which brought strong to violent tornadoes.

A week later, another barrage of tornadoes plagued the South, with another EF4 tornado touching down less than 30 miles south of where two other deadly EF4s struck during the Easter weekend event. That tornado on April 19 struck Hurricane Creek, Sandy Hoo and Pine Burr, all in Mississippi.

Then, a third outbreak on April 22 and 23 dropped an EF3 vortex on Onalaska, Tex., killing three people before the storm produced additional tornadoes in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Most noteworthy were the four EF4 tornadoes that touched down during the month — three of which took place in Mississippi and the fourth in Hampton County, S.C.

A welcome respite where tornadoes are a fact of life

The quiet month over the central United States has been enthusiastically received at a time of high uncertainty and stress over the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. While many states, communities and households are increasingly strapped for cash, the lapse in damaging tornadoes represents a reduced year-over-year financial burden.

Overall, severe thunderstorm-induced insured losses, which include damage from tornadoes, are running more than $1 billion below their 10-year average for May. That’s according to Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight at the insurance giant Aon. It’s also the first time since 2007 that May hasn’t featured a single billion-dollar severe thunderstorm or tornado disaster.

“We’re slightly below the decadal average for severe convective storms,” Bowen said.

Still, weather-related losses are approaching $5 billion, he said. Disastrous flooding struck parts of Michigan on May 19, where one dam collapsed, flooding the city of Midland, and another was overtopped after extreme rainfall.

“It still has been a pretty costly month," Bowen said. “We’re talking losses, not just from tornadoes, approaching $5 billion.”

That’s about $1.5 billion below the running average — a token of good news during a national crisis that has left more than 40 million filing for unemployment benefits.

The year as a whole, however, has been an expensive one, with damage from severe thunderstorms tallying $20 billion. Much of the losses stem from the tornado outbreaks that struck the South during April and the vicious tornadoes that tore through Middle Tennessee on the night of March 2.

Among the major contributors have been hailstorms, which Bowen says rack up between 50 and 80 percent of the thunderstorm damage price tag during any given year.

“It’s like death by a million paper cuts,” said Bowen. “You have a lot of events that cause a couple hundred million dollars [of damage] … it adds up pretty quickly.”

Escaping the storms of years past

Even in areas that have been fortunate to miss out what’s usually the peak of tornado season, May can reawaken painful memories from years past. Almost every day in May is an anniversary of a storm that struck years ago. While the scars in the landscape left by past encounters with Mother Nature’s fury may fade, the memories do not.

“Social media brings up the reminders to everyone quite a bit,” said Lihue. “On May 20, it was just a flashback of memories, especially from 2013. The loss of life, the schools that were hit, the loss of children …. all of that just kind of comes roaring back every May. I’m thankful we didn’t go through that again, especially this year with the pandemic.”

“A lot of people that I didn’t know back in 1999, you find out later that their homes [had been] destroyed,” he continued. “You would have never known that because of the rebound that they have made.”

Despite the painful memories, Lihue explained that a storm-riddled history has over time brought the community closer together — and made preparation part of the culture.

“I feel like there is anxiety with our kids and our families,” said Lihue. “I know people always say the word ‘weather aware,’ but that’s what they are … people are more aware of what their response is, what they will do, what their plan of action is if a storm were to come through.”

Lihue said he installed a storm shelter after the 2013 tornado. In 2015, residents of Moore voted overwhelmingly in support of a $209 million bond that would fund the construction of storm shelters in schools. As of late 2019, all schools in the Moore Public School district had shelters.

“It’s great to know that they’re there,” said Lihue. “I feel like there is anxiety with our kids and our families. More people have in-ground shelter or above ground shelters … it’s pretty common for our area. We put one in our backyard, and just the peace of mind … my kids know that, our neighbors know that.”

It’s something Miller witnessed firsthand when she moved to Oklahoma from New York, after pursuing a PhD in England. She noted that each of her students seemed to have a story to tell.

“Many of them are close calls that were, fortunately, non-catastrophic,” she explained. “I’m glad that we’re experiencing a comparatively slow season.”

But across Oklahoma, the relatively calm May has been far from easy. Even during a season largely devoid of tornadoes, many folks are struggling to weather the storm.

“The economic fallout that happened, that we saw locally, from covid-19, [led to] businesses and restaurants having to close,” said Lihue. “Local people we know who had survived previous tornadoes, previous difficulties … now this is doing them in.”

Upper-air weather patterns suppressed storms

Contributing to the absence of May twisters has been an unfavorable upper-air weather pattern that’s shunted the jet stream well northwest of the central and southern Plains. The jet stream, a corridor of swiftly moving air in the upper atmosphere, can help spark severe thunderstorms and adds wind shear, a key ingredient that helps cause storms to spin and spawn tornadoes.

Jet stream energy has been tough to come by this May.

Equally discouraging to storm prospects were lobes of cold that descended over the eastern United States. A “trough,” or dip in the jet stream, hovered over the Northeast for weeks, its influence spilling westward in the form of lower humidity levels and reduced fuel for storminess over the nation’s central regions. When that system finally withdrew, an upper-level “cutoff low,” or a chilly whirl of rotating air and low pressure in the upper atmosphere, parked itself over the Southeast for days with a similar effect to its west.

Large-scale triggers for widespread storminess in the Plains have been replaced by more localized influences, confining episodes of storms to smaller geographical regions.

Heading into June, there are no signals of widespread tornado activity in the pipeline. While there are indications parts of the Upper Midwest and Ohio Valley may be at an increased risk for wind-producing thunderstorms to kick off the month, the environment does not look more than marginally favorable for tornadoes anywhere across the Lower 48 in the coming week.