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May 27, 2013

When tornadoes strike, Oklahomans trust veteran TV weatherman

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two days before the tornado hit, Gary England had an uneasy feeling. The wind patterns emerging over the weekend reminded him of the conditions that unleashed deadly storms in the region on May 3, 1999.

He began warning that trouble was just days away. England has been forecasting the state’s often capricious weather for so long — 40 years — that when he says to seek shelter, they do.

Reporting from his post at KWTV, the TV meteorologist watched last Monday as monitors showed a mammoth tornado, spun by 200 mph winds, ripping through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Roofs, walls and chimneys hurtled through the air.

“Those are homes,” he told viewers, his voice steady but tinged with sadness. “It’s going through homes.”

He then addressed those in the tornado’s path. “It is a life-threatening tornado,” he said, reminding them what Oklahomans learn from childhood: that the safest place in a tornado is below ground. “Take your precautions immediately.”

The tornado killed 24 people and damaged or destroyed more than 12,000 homes. Scores of people were rescued. When Gov. Mary Fallin singled out the heroes, she included the state’s weathercasters, and England’s been at it longer than any of them.

At 73, he has chronicled some of Oklahoma’s most devastating storms in this part of the nation, known as Tornado Alley.

England got started in 1972, when he stood in front of cameras with chalkboards, not computer graphics, providing the visuals. He is credited with developing faster and more accurate methods of predicting tornadoes and often issues warnings before the National Weather Service.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Gary England saved my life,’” said Keli Pirtle, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Oklahoma tornadoes help define the state’s culture. A country-music radio station in Oklahoma City is known as “The Twister.” The airport sells trinkets decorated with whimsical images of funnel clouds. People regularly ignore tornado watches, but when one is sighted or imminent, they take notice.

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