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 Channel 9, the TV meteorologist watched on 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 twister'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."

Monday's tornado left 24 dead and more than 12,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Scores of people were rescued. When Republican Gov. Mary Fallin singled out the heroes this week, 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.

A popular Oklahoma City blog recently voted England the most influential person in the state; Jesus came in second.

In Oklahoma tornadoes strike fear, but they also help define the state's culture. A country station in Oklahoma City is 101.9 The Twister. The airport sells trinkets decorated with whimsical images of funnel clouds. People regularly ignore tornado watches, issued when conditions are right for a twister. But when one is sighted or imminent, they take notice.

Describing himself as an Okie living his dream, England also has a folksy and off-beat sense of humor and a persona that's pure country, sprinkling his reports with exclamations of gosh, good gracious, and great God almighty.

He calls computers and other high-tech equipment "rascals." Oklahoma City is "the big town" and menacing storms "the big uglies." He advises viewers without storm cellars to take shelter in a bathtub and cover themselves with blankets and "pillahs."

"The ability to take highly technical weather information and translate it into the way in which a rural Oklahoman who's running a wheat or cattle farm can understand is critically important," said Kevin Kloesel, director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, a state agency. "If you could call a language Oklahoman, Gary speaks it and invented some of the phrases for it."

For years England would do segments on the "thunder lizard," which he described as a 805-pound creature that changed color with the weather. It was completely fictitious, and viewers, in on the joke, called in with tongue-in-cheek reports about run-ins with the beast.

One night on Facebook he wrote one of his favorite lines: "Jump back, throw me down, Loretta, it's Friday night in the Big Town!" It's his way of expressing excitement, and his fans commented immediately. "I love you," one man wrote. "You are an inspiration to my life, and if I was a female, I would marry you."

At the parades, school assemblies and community picnics he attends throughout the state — he once rode a bucking bull in a rodeo — smiling fans clamor for him, shove babies into his hands, pose for photos and demand autographs.

His quirks are so familiar that in 2006 two University of Oklahoma students — one a self-described weather nerd — created the Gary England drinking game, now played statewide.

Among the rules: If England mentions Pottawatomie County, baseball-sized hail or the towns of Slaughterville, Weleetka or Mulhall, players take two drinks. If he says "mesocyclone," that's three drinks.

His crew of storm chasers who report from the field includes a young British man who saw England's tornado broadcasts and moved with his mother to Oklahoma because he wanted to work with him. A husband-and-wife team who started a ministry called StormTrackers for Christ have been sending him reports for more than a decade. He keeps the contact information for his 10 or so storm chasers, who receive modest stipends, in a white binder labeled "The Book of Knowledge."