A meteorologist at an Oklahoma City television station is receiving intense criticism after telling viewers to get in their cars and try to flee from the tornadoes that hit on Friday, May 31, 2013. Mike Morgan, chief meteorologist at KFOR in Oklahoma city, can be heard several times warning viewers to “go south” from certain parts of the Oklahoma City metro area as a violent thunderstorms that was producing a tornado approached from the west.
Some people said they followed his advice and ended up stuck in traffic jams on major central Oklahoma highways as a massive storm bore down on the Oklahoma City area.
The result was a “nightmare” on the roads, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said, exacerbated by some employers letting people off early from work to beat the rush hour on Friday.
Tornadoes and flooding from the Friday storms killed 20 people, the chief Oklahoma medical examiner’s office said on Wednesday in its latest update of fatalities. Fallin said some people were sucked from their cars and some vehicles tossed from the roads.
Commentary by Fred Campagna – During my 14 years on television I covered many severe weather situations. It is a daunting task to provide critical, potentially lifesaving, information to viewers when a severe thunderstorm or tornado is bearing down on your viewing area. This situation was particularly life-threatening, and I believe Morgan, an experienced chief meteorologist, was giving what he thought was the best advice to keep his viewers safe from the approaching storm. Keep in mind, just a couple of weeks earlier the historic Moore, OK tornado had a obliterated everything in its path. Some who sought shelter above ground were killed by that tornado. It’s possible that Morgan had that fresh in his memory and felt that there was time for his viewers to get out of harm’s way.
Early in the above video, you can hear Morgan saying “no one should be traveling westbound out of Oklahoma City on I-40”. This is good advice as the record 2.6 mile wide tornado was heading down that highway. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is where most of the tornado-related fatalities occurred. During the rest of the video, Morgan is telling viewers in the southern and southeastern parts of the OKC metro area to head south. Two smaller tornadoes (F1 and F0) ended up forming in those places, and many people were put in harm’s way by the bad advice. Unfortunately, for Morgan, he made a very poor decision in telling viewers to try to escape a tornado without much time to spare. In my opinion, the approaching storm was too close to advise the public in those areas to do anything but hunker down and try to ride it out. However, if the fatalities occurred near I-40, where Morgan was giving sound advice, than I think he is being made the scapegoat.
Did Mike Morgan give bad advice by telling viewers to flee from areas including Yukon, Oklahoma City and Midwest City? Yes. The tornado and dangerous thunderstorm was so close and unpredictable that being caught in traffic was a very dangerous situation. A car is a far more dangerous place to be than a house when a tornado approaches.
Did Mike Morgan’s actions lead to the traffic jam on I-40 where the El Reno tornado hit and killed several motorists? Admittedly, I am not privy to the information on where the fatalities occurred. I see no evidence of Morgan telling viewers to head anywhere but away from the approaching El Reno tornado. In fact, he can be heard clearly advising viewers to stay away from I-40.
Is Mike Morgan being made a scapegoat for the unfortunate events of May 31, 2013? Possibly. There are also reports that many businesses let employees out early because of the storm threat. There were an inordinate amount of storm chasers following this storm – including several that were hit, and three that were killed, by the tornado as they tried to flee. While there is little doubt that advising viewers to flee a nearby tornado is poor judgement, Morgan’s advice may not have directly contributed to the traffic jams and those people most severely impacted by the El Reno tornado.