By Alice Mannette
(Reuters) - An award-winning Oklahoma television meteorologist has been criticized as "irresponsible" for telling viewers on Friday to get in their cars and flee approaching tornadoes, and some are blaming him for putting people in grave danger on clogged roads.
Mike Morgan, chief meteorologist for Oklahoma City television station KFOR, told viewers during a tornado warning to get in their cars and drive away from a threatened storm.
Some people said they followed his advice and ended up stuck in traffic jams on major central Oklahoma highways as a massive storm bore down on the Oklahoma City area.
The result was a "nightmare" on the roads, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said, exacerbated by some employers letting people off early from work to beat the rush hour on Friday.
Tornadoes and flooding from the Friday storms killed 20 people, the chief Oklahoma medical examiner's office said on Wednesday in its latest update of fatalities. Fallin said some people were sucked from their cars and some vehicles tossed from the roads.
It was the second wave of deadly tornadoes in the area in two weeks. A monster twister flattened whole sections of the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on May 20. One Oklahoma tornado on Friday was the widest ever recorded in the United States at 2.6 miles, the National Weather Service said.
Morgan, an 11-time weather broadcast award winner in Oklahoma, where meteorologists are admired for timely forecasts about tornadoes, gave viewers the standard advice to seek cover in a storm cellar, shelter or other safe place below ground.
But some critics said Morgan then went too far when he told viewers: "If you can leave South Oklahoma City and go south do it now." He repeated similar advice several times.
Morgan was not the only local forecaster to give such advice as the storm front threatened to hit the major population center of Oklahoma City.
Ernst Kiesling, research professor at Texas Tech's National Wind Institute, said it was wrong to advise people to get in their cars and try to outrun a tornado.
"Irresponsible reporting of that kind is unconscionable in my mind. You have the responsibility to give more than your off-the-cuff opinions."
Cassandra Donnelly of Oklahoma City was one of those people who headed south on the advice of newscasters and got stuck in traffic.
Donnelly said she saw cars driving the wrong way and through stop signs on one of city's major arteries. She eventually pulled off the road into the bushes.
"I told my mom and my sister to keep praying. The rain was horizontal," Donnelly said. "We were pushed forward twice."
Morgan has not appeared on the network since Friday, and the station said he is on vacation and would be back on Thursday. He could not be reached for comment.
But a statement from KFOR on Wednesday said: "After every major storm, we review our coverage and the many things that make each weather event unique, for the purpose of improving our coverage and our ability to forecast."
Greg Carbin, Meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said a car is a more dangerous place to be than a well-constructed home in a tornado.
"You will more likely put yourself in more danger by leaving your house," he said.
Some people defended Morgan. David Barfield of Oklahoma City said he believes Morgan's advice two weeks ago during the monster tornado in Moore saved his daughter's life.
His daughter was in an above-ground closet but Barfield, following Morgan's advice to go underground, kept telephoning her to urge her to leave. She eventually did and survived.
"She would have died if she had stayed there," Barfield said.
(Additional reporting by Heide Brandes; Editing by Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham)