Damage assessments after the Cole Tornado
Updated: May 23
Weather setup and operations
On the morning of April 19th, 2023, the Storm Prediction Center included Tillman County, Oklahoma, in a slight risk for the threat of severe weather during the afternoon and evening hours. Baseball size hail and wind gusts ranging from 60 mph to 80 mph were the main concern, however, there was a low tornado threat. That morning, around 10 AM, I began forecasting the severe weather setup by looking at both model and real-time atmospheric data. By 11 AM, I
began writing a weather preparedness email for my stakeholders. In this email, I noted that Tillman County was currently sitting at 2,500 CAPE and 25 kts of shear (28 mph). I highly believed that Tillman County was more at risk of seeing large hail/severe winds rather than a tornado. With this in mind, I still went ahead and activated my storm spotters. Later in the afternoon just after 4:30 PM, the Storm Prediction Center issued the first Watch of the
day, that being a Tornado Watch. This watch included Tillman County. I immediately activated the Tillman County Emergency Operations Center and sent out a message over the County Fire frequency detailing the watch. At 6:25 PM, the first Thunderstorm of note crossed into the Southern half of Tillman County from Wilbarger County, Texas. As this storm moved northeast towards the Town of Hollister, a TCEMA Spotter reported quarter-sized hail. I gave this information to the National Weather Service - Norman office.
As this storm continued to move through the county, a second thunderstorm moved into the southern half of Tillman County, and at 7:45 PM, citizens in Grandfield reported golf ball size hail. This report was also forwarded to the National Weather Service - Norman office. The time was now 8:24 PM, and after looking over mesoanalysis data and noticing clear skies back to our west, I deactivated the EOC and headed home for the night.
Receiving the call
Shortly after deactivating the Tillman County EOC, I received a call from the Southwest Oklahoma Emergency Management Coordinator. He was contacting me to see if I was available to respond to Cole, Oklahoma, (2-hours away) as the town had just taken a direct hit from a tornado. I replied by saying that I needed rest, however, was willing to help with damage assessments the following day. Later that night, I received a message from a Southwest Incident Support Team Lead detailing what time I had to be at the staging area and where the staging area was.
Performing damage assessments in Cole
On the morning of April 20th, I headed northeast towards the town of Purcell, Oklahoma, where I'd meet up with other Emergency Managers from the Southwest who were also helping with damage assessments. After meeting at the Public Safety Center in McClain County, we drove to the Cole Fire Department in Cole, Oklahoma, where we were given our assignments for the day.
The Cole Fire Chief assigned the majority of Cole to me as well as areas east and south of Cole (area in red). The total perimeter of the area was 14.02 miles or 7,691 acres. In addition to this, I was also assigned to a small section just west of the main area (area in pink). The total perimeter of this area was 2.03 miles or 154.79 acres. I chose to knock out the area highlighted in pink first as that had a much smaller zone. As I made my way into the damaged area, I began seeing destruction that I had not seen since the Elk City EF-2 on May 16th, 2017.
Throughout the morning not only did I fill out IA damage assessment forms through Survey 123 and then forward American Red Cross information to those affected, but I also trained an Emergency Management volunteer on how to perform damage assessments. They filled out IA damage assessment forms with precision and I couldn't have finished all of the affected areas as quickly without them. I was in amazement at what I saw. Some homes had minor roof damage while other homes not even a quarter mile away were completely destroyed. By lunchtime both the EM Volunteer and I had cleared out the pink section. From here we moved on to the
At 1:25 PM, the Southwest Oklahoma Emergency Management Coordinator called me and told me to come back to the Cole Fire Department as soon as possible because I had a new assignment. Shortly after receiving that call, I made my way back to the Fire Department. The Southwest OEM Coordinator informed me that I was being reassigned to a rural damaged area that had yet to be surveyed. He also informed me that I was going to use a brand new damage assessment tool provided by the State and
that I was going to be the first EM in the State to use this tool. The tool that I ended up using was called "QuikCapture" which is an Esri product. QuikCapture allowed us to take up to 4 pictures of a damaged home and then classify that home as "minor, damaged, or destroyed" without ever having to seek out the homeowner to ask questions like Survey123 requires. As a result, both the EM Volunteer and I were able to sweep 2 miles
of damaged homes within 15 minutes. In those 15 minutes, we were able to identify 28 homes that had been damaged. An hour later we had finished our assignments for the day. I was so ecstatic about using the QuikCapture app and highly recommended that Oklahoma Emergency Management continue to use this app over Survey123 as it gave a better picture of the damage. Once I returned to the staging area I was informed by both the Southwest OEM Coordinator and McClain County EM that I was good to head home.
The following day, I received a call from the Southwest OEM Coordinator requesting that I help with damage assessments in Cleveland County, Oklahoma. I happily agreed and on April 22nd both myself and the EM Volunteer were back out helping EMs with damage assessments.
In the past decade, I have performed many damage assessments related to severe weather, however, none were like the damage assessment that I did in Cole, Oklahoma, after an EF-3 ripped through the town killing 1 person. I woke up at 6 AM on April 20th, drove 2 hours to the meeting point, performed damage assessments from 10 AM to 4:30 PM, and then drove another 2 hours home. I never received a paycheck for my work as it was all voluntary and that's okay. I even used my personal vehicle. I'd do it again in a heartbeat if I had to. This experience was significantly beneficial as it allowed me to gain more hands-on experience which I can bring back to Tillman County in case of a similar incident.
About the writer: Michael Thornton graduated from Rose State College majoring in Emergency Management. Currently, he is the Director of Tillman County Emergency Management, a Southwest Incident Support Team member, and an Oklahoma Emergency Management Association member.