NORMAN — Norman residents seeking protection in the city’s public shelters may not be as safe as they think. Norman’s public storm shelters are not tornado safe, and the city may close them in the near future.
“They’re just buildings,” Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said. “What we’re doing may provide a false sense of security.”
Fullingim and Emergency Management Director David Grizzle said every individual and family should have a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio and a severe storm plan for tornado preparedness.
Norman recommends that people shelter in place, meaning make a plan to seek shelter in a personal or friend’s tornado shelter, in your home or nearby. Fullingim advises not traveling or getting into an automobile when a tornado is imminent.
The National Weather Service tries to provide a 15-minute tornado warning to allow people to get to safety, but that isn’t always possible.
Even when the warning is possible, that may not be enough time to get in a car and drive across town to a shelter.
In cases such as the tornado that hit Norman on April 13, the advanced warning didn’t happen.
“We gave you about a three-minute negative lead time on that tornado,” Fullingim said.
The city’s warning came based on information from McClain County. The National Weather Service warning came after a tornado had hit.
“Not everyone is trained to spot a tornado, and you can’t send the whole town into panic over an anonymous phone call,” Fullingim said.
The city is discussing ways to educate the community and help people take personal responsibility for safety during severe storms.
“You need to pay attention to what is going on to be better prepared to respond,” Fullingim said.
Tornado sirens can’t be heard in many homes.
“This is an outdoor warning system,” Fullingim said. “It is intended to warn people who are outside to take shelter.”
People in homes should listen to a NOAA weather radio and/or watch local television broadcasts as well as keeping an eye on the sky.
“The tornado that happened last spring developed in McClain County,” Fullingim said. “I recommend you add McClain County and Cleveland County both to your radio.”
He said it is important that people develop personal plans for action in case of a tornado.
While the city has public shelters at public schools with recreational centers — Whittier, Cleveland, Irving and Little Axe — those buildings may not be safer than most homes.
Furthermore, the fire department must open those shelters during the hours that school is not in operation. The fire department needs an hour to an hour- and-a-half lead time to open a shelter, and often that time is not available before a tornado hits.
“If we are going to provide these shelters, we need to be certain they are open,” Fullingim said.
Other problems are associated with having public storm shelters.
“The last place you want to be in during a tornado is a car,” Fullingim said.
While mobile homes are not safe either, often people will pass other buildings while trying to get to a public shelter. The tornado may arrive before they are in the shelter.
Additionally, there is confusion about which schools are shelters.
“People get the impression all schools are storm shelters,” he said.
People arrive at a school and the doors are locked.
“We’ve had that situation more than once,” Fullingim said.
Social media has contributed to the problem because of public reports. A janitor may let someone into a building and then they put the message out. Suddenly, a school that is not staffed to be a storm shelter is mobbed with people.
After the Joplin tornado, some people panicked, which created situations at some shelters.
“People actually got in a fistfight because someone had a dog in there and someone else wanted the dog out so that his kid could get in,” Fullingim said.
State regulations that Norman must follow prohibits pets in storm shelters. Firefighters who must deal with the crowds aren’t trained for that.
But more often, firefighters are sitting around in a shelter and no one shows up because the tornado doesn’t form.
Shelters must be open, so the fire department errs on the side of caution if there is a chance of a tornado.
“It probably costs about $500 in overtime costs every time we open the shelters,” Fullingim said.
Fullingim said his daughter is moving into an apartment. He has made sure she has a NOAA radio and a plan. If she has time, she will come to her dad’s house. If not, she will seek shelter at a lower level of the apartment.
“It doesn’t matter what your conditions are, you can make a plan,” he said. “You look for a central location, a windowless room.”
Council member Tom Kovach said the Whittier shelter is near a mobile home park. He wants to keep that shelter open at least another season as people are educated on what to do.
The Norman Fire Department is planning an educational campaign this spring with smoke detectors and information on tornado safety. That will be targeted at mobile home parks but could broaden to include apartments, Fullingim said.
The city council will take the situation under advisement and work with city staff to consider what to do about the city’s public shelters.