NORMAN — Though tornado season rolls into Oklahoma year in and year out, unpredictably dangerous twisters catch many who have no emergency plan off-guard, resulting in injuries or death.
According to the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, 48 people died in central Oklahoma storms this year. These deaths — from the May 19, May 20 and May 31 tornadoes in Pottawatomie, Cleveland and Canadian counties, respectively — took place in mobile homes, houses, buildings, vehicles or unknown locations, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. None are recorded as taking place inside a shelter.
Alan Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency media relations specialist, said having a plan — including a communication and sheltering plan for before, during and after a tornado — can make the difference between life and death.
“Obviously, in a situation like a tornado, minutes count. If you’re trying to decide what you’re going to do in those minutes, you’re way behind the game. Minutes save lives, and that’s no joke,” he said. “The best thing you can do is have a plan and have a drill. You have to know what to do in a drill, and the only way to know how to do that is to practice it. If you don’t know where to go in the event of a tornado — that’s a recipe for disaster right there.”
While Oklahoma residents shouldn’t feel paranoid about their safety during tornado seasons, Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Norman Forecast Office, said a healthy respect for these storms goes a long way.
“We have to know it can happen again. It may be next spring, it may be 50 years from now, but it will happen again,” he said. “Having a healthy respect just means having a plan for you and your family about what you’re going to do.”
According to FEMA’s website, ready.gov, U.S. residents can take several preparedness steps to protect themselves in the event of a severe weather event.
· Be weather-aware: To protect yourself, you first have to be aware of the weather. The city of Norman’s Emergency Management Coordinator, David Grizzle, said the city’s sirens are designed to be an outdoor warning signal and are not designed to be heard indoors. Residents should take steps to inform themselves on the weather in other ways.
The ready.gov website suggests using multiple platforms such as TV, radio and Internet to hear the latest weather news. Crank radios can be especially useful in case of a power outage.
Residents also are advised to be alert of changing weather conditions and to look for approaching storms, including danger signs such as a dark, often greenish sky; large hail; a large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating); and a loud roar, similar to a freight train. If approaching storms show danger signs, shelter should be sought immediately.
· Family communication plan: Having a communication plan can help eliminate some of the confusion before, during and after a tornado. The ready.gov website suggests forming plans for each family member depending on where they could be when severe weather strikes.
Norman’s Emergency Management website suggests identifying the safest shelter areas in each possible location, such as an interior room with no windows or the lowest level of a building. The family emergency plan also should determine when to seek shelter in or outside the home and when to possibly vacate.
A meeting place also should be established in the event family members are separated. Cross said families with children should consider practicing their plans.
“It’s kind of like driving a car,” he said. “The first time you get behind a car you’re just scared to death, but the more you do it, the more practiced you get, you’re more comfortable with it. So the more you practice, the better you get at it and it just becomes a habit.”
The ready.gov site suggests completing a contact card for each member of the family to keep handy in wallets, purses or backpacks. Each family member should also have a cell phone, coins or a prepaid phone card for emergency calls.
All families should identify a contact who lives outside of the state or immediate area to contact when getting into a storm shelter, Grizzle said. Long-distance phone calls may be easier to make than across town, so out-of-town contacts could help with communicating between separated family members.
Text messaging may be an effective way to communicate during an emergency because texts often are able to get around network disruptions.
· Preparedness kits: According to ready.gov, a disaster survival kit is assembled with items a household may need in the event of an emergency.
Kits should be assembled in advance of an emergency and should contain sufficient food, water and other supplies to survive on your own after an emergency for at least 72 hours.
Basic disaster supplies kits contain water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days for drinking and sanitation; food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food per person; battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both; flashlight and extra batteries; first aid kit; whistle to signal for help; dust masks; moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation; wrench or pliers to turn off utilities; manual can opener for food; local maps and a cell phone with a charger, inverter or solar charger.
Other items to consider include prescription medications and glasses; infant formula and diapers; pet food and extra water for pets; cash or traveler’s checks; important family documents in a waterproof portable container; first aid book; sleeping bag for each person; complete change of clothing for each person; household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper; fire extinguisher; matches in a waterproof container; feminine supplies and personal hygiene items; mess kits; paper and pencil; and books, games, puzzles or other activities for children.
Maintain kits by rotating food and water supplies every six months, and consider updating kits as family needs change. Having multiple kits on hand in various locations — such as home, work and vehicle — can ensure preparedness at all times.
For more information on building a kit, visit ready.gov. Visit listo.gov for the Spanish version of the website.
· Sheltering: Knowing where and when to seek shelter is critical during a tornado. Grizzle said when Norman residents hear a siren, they should already be well into their emergency preparedness plan.
The city of Norman Emergency Management supports the concept of sheltering in place. Residents should seek the safest area of the building they are in. If not getting into a shelter or safe room, the safest area is an interior room with no windows on the lowest level of a building. Cars and mobile homes are not safe during a tornado.
If a family decides to vacate an area, plans should be made early enough to reach the destination before the storm enters city limits.
Grizzle said Norman residents should be aware that public shelters are designed for those who are caught out in the storm or have no better option. These locations are not certified storm shelters and are not any safer than the typical home.
Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association and research professor at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, said surviving a tornado isn’t dependent upon having access to a certified shelter.
“The probability of surviving a severe tornado is pretty high; not too many people are killed. Primarily, with a storm shelter you get peace of mind and have a safe place available,” Kiesling said. “If children are home and you’re not, then they know what to do and you can rest easy knowing that regardless of what type of weather you have a safe place is available. Peace of mind is the best reason to have a storm shelter.”
Though it is frequently rumored that the only place to survive a tornado as large as an EF-4 or EF-5 is underground, Kiesling said that is not necessarily true.
“Storm shelters above and below ground can be designed for a high degree of safety for the worse-case scenarios,” he said.
All storms certified with the National Storm Shelter Association are tested to be able to withstand winds up to 250 mph. Though tornado winds have been measured at greater than 300 mph, Kiesling said these speeds are only found at the top of a tornado and don’t pose a threat to anyone on ground level. Maximum ground-level winds average around 200 mph, leaving a reasonable margin of safety for shelter occupants.
Shelters are available in a variety of sizes and costs, from a four-person shelter starting around $3,000 to a family-sized shelter for $8,000 to $10,000. Kiesling said the price depends on the kind of shelter, size and quality of finish.
Grizzle said good deals on shelters can frequently be found at home and garden shows. Registering shelters with the city is a way to provide a database of Norman shelters to emergency agencies. In the event of a tornado, emergency crews can locate residents who may be trapped in shelters.
As of June 17, 2,490 shelters were registered in Norman. Grizzle said residents in shelters should be prepared to stay in shelters for 24 hours.
To register a safe room, storm cellar, in-ground shelter or basement, visit ci.norman.ok.us/content/storm-shelter-information.