"It makes you wonder how people survive these things," says National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist James LaDue, with a gentle shake of his head, as he stands the next afternoon amid the shattered wood, shards of glass, and tufts of fiberglass insulation that once made up the Lord family's high-ceilinged two-story home.
The Woodward tornado killed six people, including two children, and injured 29. Paul Lord survived – managing to curl up in a gutter and ride it out – with only minor injuries and the survivor's awe that Mr. LaDue and his colleagues in the forensics of tornadoes witness regularly.
LaDue operates at the intersection of science and humanity in making the initial assessment of the impact one of nature's most violent phenomena has on individuals and communities. Their work and that of weather researchers, engineers, and public-health officials around the country – before and after storms – has advanced the science of tornadoes and the potential for earlier warnings and safer structures.
Tornado-warning lead times are longer than ever – at 14 to 19 minutes on average – and may be about to increase dramatically because scientists are uncovering new features within thunderstorms that could serve as early-warning signs that a tornado is likely to form soon. Forecasters are getting new tools that can reveal in real time the inner workings of a thunderstorm, even as researchers are devising new ways to sort through the information to provide warnings with longer lead times and with more tightly focused warning areas. And engineers are undertaking new initiatives to identify construction techniques tailored to improve a home's ability to withstand the unique mix of winds a tornado delivers.
LaDue, from the NWS Warning Decision Training Branch at the US National Weather Center in Norman, Okla., and Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS forecast office in Norman, arrive in Woodward the next day to collect information aimed at verifying and improving warnings. Their findings also determine the intensity of tornadoes on a scale from 1 to 6.