Living in Tornado Alley

I have some thoughts to open with today, based on my recent experience in Oklahoma City on May 31, as I managed to avoid getting caught in one of the worst tornado outbreaks there in recent memory, less than two weeks after the horrible tornado that tore through Moore and killed 24 people.  In fact, a recent update on the El Reno tornado now confirms the shocking reality of just how bad it was.

Weather warning technology is now often giving us very reliable advance information on severe storms to come, sometimes hours in advance of these life-threatening storms for remarkably specific areas.  Now, what are we each supposed to do with these warnings?  What should city and county governments do with them?  What should employers do with them?  What should schools do with them?  What should media outlets do with them?  What is reasonable in these situations and what is not?  When should the sirens be sounded?

I have always lived in tornado alley.  Over the past couple of weeks, some other areas of tornado alley in Oklahoma have really been inundated with bad storms, large hail and deadly, horrific tornadoes.  Those areas are several hours from where we live, but on May 31, I had the occasion to actually be in Oklahoma City with a relative, picking up a car that he bought to then drive back to our hometown.  That was the day that so many motorists on and near I-40, including three storm chasers, found themselves in the path of a record-setting F5 tornado that apparently shifted course quickly to the north and headed right in their path.  Sadly, some died, including a mother and her baby and surprisingly enough, those respected storm chasers – one of which was Tim Samaras.

The OKC storm on 5/31/13, about two hours behind us on I-40.
The OKC storm on 5/31/13, about two hours behind us on I-40.  It actually grew even larger after this photo was taken.  We heeded the advance information, well ahead of the actual warnings hours later, and began our drive home earlier than we originally planned, thanks to social media warnings from the NWS in Norman and a couple of storm chasers.  We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Last Friday when we arrived in OKC around lunchtime, I began following updates from the @NWSNorman Twitter feed, and based on the information that was being shared there, we made sure that we were on our way out-of-town around 2 pm so that we would not get caught in the severe storms if we could possibly help it, especially since the storm built to the west of OKC, which also happened to be the direction we needed to go.  The ominous warnings from the weather service in Norman and various other news and weather blogs made it perfectly clear as early as noon that it was going to be a very bad storm that would produce large hail and tornadoes for the OKC metro area.  That information was easily available to anyone that knew it was there on Twitter to check out hours before it came to pass.

Since last Friday, there has been a lot of discussion about how to best warn people about weather dangers and even about possibly cracking down on storm chasers.  I have the utmost admiration for the reputable storm chasers that provide this timely information to their local weather services and the general public, and that includes the storm chasers that lost their lives because I understand Tim Samaras was a fabulous scientific researcher.  For many storm chasers, this is their job, they have enormous expenses, and most of the pros are professional about it all.  We have a great storm chaser in our area, too.  These people have been pioneers on the “front-lines” of the tornado battles for years, and they have done so much good work in providing real-time information to the authorities and to the public.  I can personally vouch that an early post by one of the storm chasers I follow on Twitter last Friday got my firm attention and made me quickly check the area weather forecast further, only to find out that we would definitely be in harm’s way if we stayed around there much longer.  I am now trying to get in touch personally with that storm chaser to tell him how grateful we are for his post because I’m not sure we would have left as early as we did if not for reading his caution about what was developing in the area.

I have had several close calls with bad tornadoes in my lifetime, and that has only made me develop a what I consider to be a healthy fear of them.  I have no intention of getting caught off-guard if I can help it, and with the many options to get good, advance forecasts today, there is really no reason to not be informed, if someone wants to take the time to be informed.  But, making some residents of tornado alley really pay attention before a storm is right on them is still a challenge even today, despite all this great information that is now available.  There is no doubt that forecasters and storm spotters are now providing much more accurate and timely information, even direct to the public themselves as well as through news outlets.  However, in my opinion and based on more than a few people I know personally, many people are still of the mindset that the news media and weather authorities are still being overly cautious, and a few cynics even think it is to drive ratings for the televisions stations that will sometimes run hours of straight weather coverage with no ads.  I’m not sure that “overly cautious” is a bad thing anyway, and I think it is a big mistake to not assume that most of the advance information today is not accurate, even though that may have been the case at times in years past.  That was then, and this is now.

It is almost always too late to relocate to another destination when the actual warnings are issued, so if people want to make a move to another safer location, they have to make the call for themselves and their families well before the actual tornado warnings come.  The NWS also has a new alert as of this year that is called a tornado emergency, just to try to get across to a few people that they need to take cover immediately.  I think this is a great decision, but I also hope that people will not wait for the tornado emergency notification now to get to their safe place because of how limited their options really are at that point, even more limited than when the tornado warning is issued.  Again, by the time the warning and/or emergency alert is given, most people just need to try to take cover where they are as best they can, leaving them with very few options for safety at that point.

In a lengthy discussion with my husband over the weekend, who tends to be one of those “late believers” when it comes to taking cover, we both finally agreed that despite the much improved warnings that are only getting better every year, it seems that most residents of tornado alley really have not changed their storm preparation plans to any significant degree.  Sometimes they don’t really have the option to act, especially if they are at work and are not permitted to leave in a timely manner to get to safety.  Also, the vast majority of us really don’t have a tornado-proof safe place to go to anyway, other than to crawl in a bathtub and cover ourselves with a mattress, if possible.  So, this goes back to my original thoughts that I shared upfront.

With the ever-increasing accuracy of this advance information, does something need to change in how we all respond to that advance information that is shared long before actual warnings are issued?  What is this great advance notice really buying us?  Don’t get me wrong.  I am beyond grateful for those advance notices!  I want all the information I can get because I tend to be one that will take action, if possible.  We don’t have a storm cellar or basement, but I have friends that do.  These are just interesting questions to consider, especially since a totally new issue arose in OKC on Friday afternoon – hurricane-type evacuations that were attempted by many people on their own after a news person apparently suggested in a relatively late time-frame that it might be fine for some residents to flee the city in a direction away of the looming storm development.  This caused a major traffic jam going south that ended in gridlock and could have been deadly to many of them if the storm shifted or built up in that direction.  There is little doubt that most cities simply cannot evacuate that many people so quickly, and while it was an option, I’m just not sure it was a good one overall.  But, I wasn’t there either.  We were already two hours away.

Perhaps now is the time to really push to get more safe rooms and shelters built in our respective communities, above anything else.  Information is great, but it is only knowledge.  People need to act on that knowledge to save their lives and the lives of those they love and are responsible for.  Fleeing in a car is not going to be a great option for most people, so that leaves shelters as the best option to save more lives.  I would also love to see communities develop more specific plans to take care of elderly people who still live in their own homes, too.  Perhaps they could be a target group to secure in shelters when serious advance information points to serious storms to come.  I would love to see cities and towns do this, perhaps through neighborhood associations or churches.  Our seniors deserve that, if at all possible.

There will never be a perfect way to protect every single person from these horrific storms when they occur.  Even with good advance information, people are not always free to take the actions they would like to take in a timely way to keep themselves and their families safe.  We could put in an underground shelter, but if my husband is at work and is not permitted to leave in time to safely make the trip home to get in the shelter, the shelter has done him no good.  Those poor people who got off work at 5 pm in OKC and tried to drive home, west on I-40, were sitting ducks.  I suspect many were just trying to get home to their families and possibly to their shelters.  We all just do the best we can with the cards we are dealt every day, and they were no different.

My heart hurts so much for all the good people in the Oklahoma City area that are suffering because of these horrific events over the past couple of weeks.  I know it could have happened here, and in fact, it has happened here during my lifetime.  My family was blessed to be out of harm’s way during that tornado, but many others were killed and injured in what still remains one of the largest and most destructive tornadoes in the US to date.

Oklahoma City area friends, my heart really goes out to you.  I hope and pray that community leaders all over tornado alley start getting really creative and start thinking outside the box about how to put this advance information to great use and not just let it go to waste.  Thanks for letting me share some random thoughts today.  While we had a tense couple of hours there just trying to get things done and get away before things got bad, it was absolutely nothing compared to what you all have been through.  God bless!

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