By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Experts will come from near and far for the National Tornado Summit on Monday and Tuesday at the Cox Convention Center, 1 Myriad Garden in Oklahoma City. Two Norman meteorologists will be among those making presentations.
Local meteorologists Rick Smith and Harold Brooks with NOAA will share what they learned after visiting Norman area schools. Smith and Brooks, who both have children who attend Norman Public Schools, worked with other team members to assess tornado preparedness and safety in Norman Public Schools, Little Axe and Robin Hill.
Smith is a warning coordination meteorologist. He said Brooks will look at the historical perspective of tornadoes in schools nationally and in Oklahoma.
“Tornado deaths in schools are exceptionally rare,” compared to some other risks, Smith said.
Smith said he became interested in helping Norman school officials update tornado plans because he has a child who attends Whittier Middle School. Until recently, Whittier also served as a public shelter. Now city leaders are asking that people shelter in place and make a family plan.
All previously designated public shelters in Norman have been closed and will no longer be an option. When Whittier was built, it had a berm and was considered partially underground, which people believed would make it safer during a storm and more energy efficient.
“Whittier was never engineered to be a public shelter, and the berm is gone,” Smith said.
Like many schools, the floorplan has changed over time.
“Several of the plans needed to be revisited because of updates and additions,” he said. “The Moore Emergency Manager did a similar exercise for his schools, I believe.”
The team, which included a structural engineer, analyzed school buildings for the safest and best places for children, teachers and staff to shelter during a tornado.
Smith’s area of expertise is early warning.
“To be safe, you have to be aware and you have to be prepared,” he said.
Preparation includes a plan and drills to prepare teachers and students to implement that plan. Smith worked with school leadership, suggesting ways for schools to get weather information. He said it’s important for people to pay attention to what Oklahoma weather is doing and plan accordingly.
While there are times a tornado comes out of nowhere — such as when the April 13, 2012, tornado hit Norman and did some damage to Norman High School — much of the time, forecasters know a storm with tornado potential is coming.
“My main focus is awareness and safety — that’s the key to safety in the schools,” Smith said. “A day like May 20 doesn’t happen by surprise. We were talking about it for five days in advance.”
Schools have gathered information and now the administration will create school plans and work with staff to prepare.
“What we’re trying to do is look at any information we can provide,” Smith said of himself and the team of emergency managers and other experts. “Spring is coming way too quickly and we need to be ready for it.”
Schools are still in the process of reviewing policy.
“We’ve had a lot of questions about districts planning to have tornado days and possibly canceling school,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the school’s decision, obviously.”
But canceling school because of a possible tornado is not the same as canceling for snow.
“The kids from Norman that are home today for a snow day, their parents may still be at work and they can go out and play in the snow,” Smith said. “It was canceled because the roads were slick.”
Staying off slick roads keeps the kids safe. Tornadoes are a different matter. Unsupervised children who are not paying attention to the weather may not take appropriate safety precautions.
“In many cases, not all cases, but in many cases, children may be better off at school than they are at home alone,” Smith said. “Some of the kids in the school district may live in mobile homes. If they’re home alone, they’re in a more dangerous place than if they’d gone to school.”
Smith said it is not his job to tell school districts what to do, but his opinion is that canceling school may not be the best choice for keeping many children safe.
Schools are working on developing expedited procedures for checking kids out on a high tornado risk day so that parents can take children home if desired.
One element to consider is creating a paper trail of who has been checked out in case of power failure.
“The schools have some good plans,” Smith said. “They’ve thought about a lot of this. I’m impressed at the dedication with everything the principal and teacher has to think about during severe weather.
“The more planning you can do in advance, the better off you’re going to be in April and May when you have to use those plans,” Smith said.
Advance planning and preparation allows for people to “do the right thing when it really counts,” he said.
Several local first responders, emergency managers, city leaders and forecasters from Norman, Moore, and Oklahoma City will speak at the Tornado Summit. Additionally, speakers from Joplin, Mo., and other national experts will be on hand with information about tornado preparedness, early warning, tornado recovery and more.
The Tornado Summit is hosted by the Oklahoma Insurance Department, University of Central Oklahoma, Oklahoma Emergency Management, National Weather Center, NOAA, Storm Prediction Center and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
The event will serve as a forum for national and state experts to exchange ideas and recommend new policies to improve disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery in order to save lives and property.
Registration for the Summit starts at 7 a.m. on Monday. Summit highlights include:
· A two-day tradeshow that connects you to valuable resources, services and products
· General sessions with presentations on Crisis and Disaster Communications, Business and Home Safety, Disaster Stress, and Reinsurance
· More than 25 breakout sessions featuring international, national and state experts
· Continuing education credits for insurance professionals
· Friends, food, and fun at the “Twister Mixer” reception on Feb. 10
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