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Historic February Tornado Outbreak Strikes Oklahoma

Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2023

A potent storm system—labeled by forecasters as “historic” and “unprecedented” for February—struck Oklahoma on Feb. 26 with the full fury and power of a classic springtime severe weather outbreak. At least 10 tornadoes were confirmed during the event, with that total almost guaranteed to creep higher with further investigation by National Weather Service personnel. The preliminary total of 10 shatters the previous February record of 6 set in both 1975 and 2009. Accurate tornado records for Oklahoma date back to 1950, and the long-term average for February is 0.3. The storm—which previously brought record snows to Southern California—seemed to pinpoint populated areas across the state with a combination of tornadoes and damaging straight-line winds. State officials reported at least 55 weather-related injures on the day. One fatality was reported when an EF2-rated tornado struck the small community of Cheyenne in Roger Mills County and destroyed at least five homes. There were at least two other “strong” EF2 twisters quickly confirmed by NWS investigations. The first was on the ground for 27 miles from Goldsby through southeast Norman, reaching a width of 700 yards. Emergency Management officials estimate 69 homes were damaged in Norman, with 40 of those being destroyed. Apartment complexes housing University of Oklahoma students were also damaged on the southeast side of Norman. Twelve minor injuries were reported by local hospitals due to the storm. The second EF2 touched down just north of Shawnee and remained on the ground for 6 miles. That tornado, along with an EF1 that touched down just to its west near McCloud, damaged 47 homes in the McCloud and Shawnee areas. Other confirmed tornadoes struck near Amorita, Erick, Hollis, Lone Wolf, Tuttle, and western Oklahoma City. There were numerous reports of straight-line winds exceeding 75 mph. The Oklahoma Mesonet site at Fittstown recorded a wind gust of 86 mph, and a media chase vehicle reported a wind gust of 111 mph near Hobart. At the height of the severe weather outbreak, more than 76,000 power outages were reported across Oklahoma.

February was not the only recent month that broke its tornado record. In astounding succession, December 2022 and January 2023 also broke their previous records with 8 and 5 tornadoes, respectively. That December-February preliminary total of 23 tornadoes—with that number almost certain to rise—obliterated the previous climatological winter record of 7, set back during the winters of 1974-75, 1975-76, and 2008-09. The 15 tornadoes during January and February also broke the previous record of 7 from the first two months of 1975. The January-February long-term average number of tornadoes is 1, and the climatological winter average is 1.5.

The statewide average precipitation total of 2.58 inches was 0.75 inches above normal and ranked the month as the 21st wettest February since records began in 1895. Hefty surpluses of 1-3 inches were observed across roughly the southeastern half of the state, with deficits of up to a half-inch across the northwestern half. Broken Bow led the state with a whopping 10.1 inches, 6.1 inches above normal. Eva had the lowest total at 0.09 inches. Twenty-eight of the Mesonet’s 120 sites recorded at least 4 inches of rain for the month, and another 20 reported at least 3 inches. January and February combined had a statewide average of 3.8 inches, 0.41 inches above normal and ranked as the 34th wettest such period on record. Climatological winter finished at 5.66 inches, 0.21 inches above normal and ranked as the 42nd wettest December-February on record. 

The statewide average temperature for the month was 44.1 degrees, 2 degrees above normal and ranked as the 32nd warmest February since records began in 1895. Temperatures ranged from 87 degrees at Burneyville on Feb. 21 to minus 1 at Kenton on Feb. 17. Prolonged cold snaps were limited during the month. The Mesonet’s 120 sites reached at least 80 degrees 55 times across 4 separate days during February, and 70 degrees 665 times across 12 separate days. The first two months of the year had a statewide average of 42 degrees, 2.6 degrees above normal and ranked as the 20th warmest January-February on record. Climatological winter’s statewide average was 43.1 degrees, 3.3 degrees above normal and ranked as the 14th warmest such period on record. The highest temperature recorded during Winter 2022-23 was the 87 degrees at Burneyville on Feb. 21, and the lowest was minus 7 degrees recorded at four separate locations between Dec. 22-23, 2022.

Drought coverage in Oklahoma was reduced by a little more than 10% during February according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, part of improvements across the southeastern half of the state that were prevalent through the winter of 2022-23. Drought covered 91% of the state at the beginning of December 2022, and 85% at the beginning of February. February’s final Drought Monitor showed 75% of the state in at least moderate drought. The Climate Prediction Center’s March temperature and precipitation outlooks don’t hold many clues other than increased odds of above normal precipitation across the eastern one-third of Oklahoma. CPC’s March drought outlook calls for some improvement of drought from central through south central Oklahoma, but persistence across much of the northwestern half of the state.