When Oscar Hammerstein penned the lyrics of the Broadway musical, Oklahoma, he wrote of an agrarian people who had “plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope;” who literally belonged to the land.
Hammerstein also wrote of the Sooner State’s agricultural abundance, invoking images of “wavin’ wheat that sure smells sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.”
But the winds that came “sweepin' down the plain” THIS week were a series of twisters that cut a deadly path of destruction.
One of the tornadoes – the EF5 that roared through Moore, Oklahoma – packs the most violent winds on Earth.
Ironically, the strongest wind ever measured was 302 miles per hour, when an EF5 struck the very same town in May of 1999. And experts say the EF5 that devastated Moore, Oklahoma on Monday released more energy than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
KATIE RATLIFF, MOORE RESIDENT: “The tornado went in and I was so afraid that I was hanging onto one of the desks and I fell back and then all the dirt start getting in my eyes and on my clothes.”
Moore, Oklahoma knows the destructive power of tornadoes all too well. The EF5 twister that demolished the Oklahoma City suburb Monday was the town’s fourth decimating touchdown since 1999. EF4 tornadoes ravaged the area in 2003 and 2010, while another EF5 racked up over $1 billion dollars-worth of damage almost fifteen years ago.
This week, cyclones wreaked havoc from Texas to Minnesota.
STORMCHASER: “Look at the tree damage! Look at all the debris in the air!”
Shawnee, Oklahoma saw heavy damage, along with nearby Wichita, Kansas and parts of Iowa. But the worst devastation was endured in Moore, Oklahoma, where a two-mile wide funnel reminded the residents of the area’s previous storms.
MOORE RESIDENT: “Oh my God…it’s devastating damage…”
The massive twister crushed homes and killed more than 20 people. Survivors in Moore may have the 1999 tornado to thank for safety precautions which could have prevented additional fatalities. Over the past decade, federal grant dollars have helped homeowners cover the cost of safe rooms that proved their worth this time around. Local authorities are expected to propose an ordinance to include storm shelters in all new home construction.
Clean-up efforts were hampered later in the week as a band of thunderstorms battered the Sooner state. Hail, heavy rain and high winds slowed the recovery operation which had just begun to accelerate once all missing persons were accounted for.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “The people of Moore should know that the country will remain on the ground there for them, beside them as long as it takes for their homes and schools to rebuild, businesses and hospitals to reopen. There are parents to console, first responders to comfort and of course frightened children who will need our continued love and attention.”
Though severe weather cut a swath across the nation’s midsection, only minimal harm was dealt to winter wheat. Persistent drought in Oklahoma had already slashed estimated prospects for this year’s crop, while hail damage in isolated areas of Kansas is not expected to affect total production.
Earlier this month, crop consultants estimated Oklahoma’s wheat production at over 85 million bushels, roughly half as much as last year. Experts mostly welcomed moisture from the storms, claiming that wheat blown down by high winds is expected to come back, barring extensive impairment to stems.
According to USDA, 43 percent of the winter wheat crop had formed heads, up from 14 percentage points a week earlier. However, the crop still trails the five-year pace of 62 percent.
Further north, Mother Nature was more forgiving to producers. Though held back by a wet spring, farmers took to their tractors en masse last week. A record amount of corn acreage was planted, even in areas where conditions are still far from perfect.
Until last week, Corn Belt farmers were enduring their slowest planting season in decades because of the wet weather. But USDA said in its weekly crop progress update that 71 percent of the nation’s corn had been sown as of Sunday. That's up from just 28 percent a week earlier, and it brought the figure closer in line to the 79 percent average that farmers had planted by this point in the season over the previous five years.