‘This is the Xenia tornado of this generation’

WARNING PEOPLE, SAVING LIVES The storm that swept through the Miami Valley on the night of Memorial Day is still with us, as the community continues to cope with the devastation left by 15 tornadoes.That night, WHIO-TV’s Storm Center 7 Chief Meteorogist McCall Vrydaghs was following the storms along with news anchor Cheryl McHenry and fellow meteorologist Dontae Jones, her face pressed to the weather monitor and using what she later called her “mom voice” to get viewers into safe spots as the tornadoes ripped past.Dayton Daily News reporter Amelia Robinson later interviewed Vrydaghs for her “What Had Happened Was…” podcast on Dayton.com, recalling how it felt to track the twisters in real time. Today we offer portions of the podcast interview, edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the whole episode, visit Dayton.com. — Ron Rollins, community impact editor‘I haven’t been able to really put it all together In my mind. It’s like, do I understand what it is that I did for the public? And I don’t, I don’t really get it. … But I am happy that it wasn’t worse.’

Amelia Robinson: What has this whole thing been like for you, having forecast and covered one of the most tragic things that's ever happened to the community?

McCall Vrydaghs: It's been stressful. It's been heartbreaking — but also uplifting, because I did have the chance to go out and talk to some people afterward. My mind is literally blown that I could be talking to somebody whose house is gone behind them, and they're hugging me and just happy; likely because they're just happy to be alive. And they're just looking ahead and being so gracious. It's just a weird feeling to know that I was a part of all of this, and hopefully saved people's lives.

Robinson: I think that's clear from everybody I've talked to. So, what is going on behind the scenes when something like that is going on live?

Vrydaghs: What you were seeing if you were watching that night was me looking at my computer as it's showing me products such as radar velocity, which can show rotating of winds; there was another product that we wound up using on air that night, which we don't often use, called "correlation coefficient." And that product can show debris. Normally it's all one color; when there are trees and houses being ripped apart, then it changes to another color. It looks like this little dot on the screen. And that's confirmation without visually seeing it that a tornado has touched down.

Robinson: And you were seeing that around what time?

Vrydaghs: Perhaps the first debris signature I saw was closer to 9:45, 10 o'clock. That was the Celina tornado. Then the next one I saw was near New Madison, then it went into Laura and Ludlow Falls. And then there were a couple circulations that developed up in Logan County, near West Liberty. And then came the monster in Montgomery County — and that one was so anomalous to the other that it took me probably about a half a second to two seconds to really understand that it was what it was, because it was so much bigger than the others.

Robinson: And scientifically, why was it so much bigger?

Vrydaghs: It just was that the environment was there. I don't know how to better describe it, than to say that the conditions were most favorable there for that to happen.

Robinson: And that's the tornado that hit Trotwood?

Vrydaghs: Yes. It came down in the Brookville area, went through Trotwood and into North Dayton. It appears that when it was just getting into Riverside, it may have picked up for, I don't know, a couple of miles and then it came right back down on the east side of Riverside. It continued on through Beavercreek near the Fairfield Commons mall and then went into northern Greene County and eventually out of our viewing area.

Robinson: There were so many, it's confusing to know which tornado hit where.

Vrydaghs: Yes, it honestly is hard to say for sure. When that tornado got into Greene County, there was a second one that formed behind it and took the same track except it started out a little bit further north in Miami County and came south, and I believe that's the one that hit Phillipsburg, and then continued down in the same track. It's very possible that some areas have damage from both tornadoes.

Robinson: Oh, really?

Vrydaghs: Yeah. But there's no way to tell, because they took that same path once it got to the Harrison Twp. area and beyond.

Robinson: Some people I've interviewed have said the reason they got into the basement was because of you and Cheryl McHenry — the seriousness in your voices, the fact that you got choked up a little bit. And frankly, I was at home crying. I started to cry when you almost started crying. Thinking about it now almost makes me want to cry.

Vrydaghs: Yeah. Makes me too.

Robinson: What happened? Was it the ferocity of it?

Vrydaghs: I knew that it was bad. I had that one to two seconds when I realized what I was seeing was actually happening. And then the debris signature — I can see on my map, because I was so close in on the view of where this circulation was that I could see all of the streets. And I knew that there were hundreds of thousands of people that were right there. And then right around that time the National Weather Service chat sends out the warning — because we communicate with them, during an event like this. Any time someone reads the word "tornado" it makes this loud mrrrk! noise. So if you're watching the coverage, and you kept hearing mrrrk! that was them writing to us something with the word "tornado" in it. The buzzer went off and I looked over and in all caps, it said: LARGE, VIOLENT TORNADO ON THE GROUND. And all of that coming together and I just thought, oh my goodness, people are dying. And it took me a moment and it popped in my head because right then it was around the Trotwood area and had already come through the Brookville area and I know some of our staff live in Trotwood — and it starts going through your head …

Robinson: Like, who are these people who could be dying?

Vrydaghs: Right, who are these people? I mean, you guys are all my family. I'm thinking of them and everybody else like they're in this and I knew it wasn't just a little tornado. Like, it was big. I couldn't tell how big it was. But it was big.

Robinson: So meteorologically, what exactly happened?

Vrydaghs: Monday during the day, conditions were coming together that created the threat for some severe weather as we were heading into the evening hours. I had just gotten back from a conference the weekend before, where I was learning all of these new techniques for forecasting for tornadoes — and more for larger tornadoes, things that don't normally happen in our area. And I'm thinking, well, when am I ever going to have to use these skills? Little did I know that a week later, I would have to.

The setup started with a warm front moving in through the area, and we had the heat — the instability in the atmosphere was very high. And there was an area of low pressure to our northwest that was going to be moving into that, which creates some energy aloft, and also creates some upper-level winds. Then we also had low-level winds that were surging in in different directions. So that creates something that we call shear — basically the environment is rotating. And then as we headed into the evening, all three of these components are coming together, basically bull’s-eyeing right in on the Miami Valley.

Before we went on air at 5 o’clock, I was talking to meteorologist Dontae Jones about some of the things that I was seeing and some of the things that I learned and I said to him, what this is showing me is that we’re 15 times more likely to have a tornado today. I don’t know if I fully absorbed what that meant. Nor did I have a reference point to compare it to. I can’t recall another time that it had been that high. Perhaps it could have been at some point, but I just didn’t know because these are new tools that I had learned. You know, in our in our field, we’re constantly learning to try and get better. So I knew something was going to happen. I had a really solid feeling that we were going to see a tornado into the evening. I did not think we were going to see 15, nor did I think that we were going to see that magnitude.

Robinson: Did you think it was going to hit the city of Dayton or more populated areas? Normally, they don't seem to hit cities.

Vrydaghs: Yeah, that's just a tornado myth. People think that, oh, tornadoes can't cross bodies of water. Tornadoes can't hit cities. But think to Oklahoma City, think of El Reno, Oklahoma, in 2013 — think of those larger cities that typically see these large tornadoes — Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. They do happen. But when you're looking at a map, and really how small tornadoes are, it's like throwing a dart at a dartboard and hitting a bull's eye. It happens. Does it happen every time? No, it doesn't. But it can.

Robinson: Had you ever seen one that size?

Vrydaghs: I don't typically see a setup that's going to produce them that large or that many, but I have forecasted that we're going to have some spin-ups that day. People around here are used to seeing smaller ones that are really quick, sometimes not even caught on radar.

Robinson: How did the holiday figure into it? I know at our house, we were grilling out, not even paying attention to the news that day. When did you see real trouble?

Vrydaghs: Probably around 7:3o, 8 o'clock. Like you said, these types of setups can happen suddenly. You can go all day and it can be sunny and nice out. And then all of a sudden, what we say is, it "breaks the cap" — all of a sudden, these storms just all fire up. So around 7:30, 8 o'clock, I saw two or three storms coming out of central Indiana that were rotating. And I knew at that point, we were in a situation because those storms were going to come in. And I knew at that point they were going to produce tornadoes. They just kept strengthening and then all the chaos happened — at 9:03, I think, our first warning was in Wayne County. After that it was just one right after the other.

Robinson: When did you start going live?

Vrydaghs: 9:03. And then we didn't stop, I think, until 1 o'clock in the afternoon the next day. The tornado threat ended around 1 o'clock in the morning.

Robinson: One thing I'm having a problem with is people not truly understanding that this was a huge deal. I don't think until you see it, you really fully understand the devastation of it.

Vrydaghs: I had this same conversation with (meteorologist) Kirstie Zontini — if you were south of town, it's as if nothing happened. It's status quo, people didn't have to boil their water, they had their lights on — you know, it's just so far removed. And while I don't want people to go and gawk and look at the damage, I know even for me as a person doing what I did, looking at radar and seeing the videos coming in, it really wasn't until I went out there and looked at it for myself that I thought, how is this ever going to get back to normal? How is all of this going to get cleaned up? Where's all of this going to go? I went to Trotwood and then to Troy Street in Dayton, and in that part of town you can tell the people don't have much to begin with; where are they going to get the help to get back what they lost? And it just makes me sad, because I know that I can't help them. I can help a little bit, with the cause. But it's way beyond anything that I can do for them.

Robinson: Reminding people, I guess, is why we do what we do — that this is something important. And of course we will be continually doing the story, but it's hard to impress on people that this is not going to be over next week.

Vrydaghs: No, it's not. It's going to be a while. There is some exhaustion from tornado coverage, and the news will slowly start to go back to normal. And it's sad because we can't continue to just cover the damage in these areas for weeks upon weeks — but it's going to take months, perhaps even a year, for some people to get back on their feet. It's one of those situations where the storm is gone, but it's not going to be forgotten. I don't want it to be forgotten by anybody.

Robinson: How does this compare to other storms?

Vrydaghs: This is the Xenia tornado of this generation. There are obviously great differences — Xenia was an F5 with winds over 250 miles per hour. Even the F4 that they rated this time had winds up to 170, so you're talking about winds at almost 100 miles per hour greater than that. But still the number or tornadoes that we had, and there were so many more communities that were impacted this time around, and so many more people around our area affected.

The difference, though, is the technology and the early warning — I think that saved so many lives. … I don’t know, I haven’t been able to really put it all together in my mind. It’s like, do I understand what it is that I did for the public? And I don’t, I don’t really get it. There are a few moments that I break down about it. But I’m just breaking down because of how bad it is. But I am happy that it wasn’t worse.

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