NORMAN — While four designated city storm shelters will remain open this year, Norman is moving toward a “shelter in place” strategy for next year. The city currently has public shelters at schools with recreational centers — Whittier, Cleveland, Irving and Little Axe — but those buildings may not be safer than most homes.
Norman’s public storm shelters are not certified tornado safe shelters, and even when an advanced warning is possible, there may not be enough time to get in a car and drive across town to a shelter, Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said.
Fullingim supports the national trend of encouraging people to “shelter in place” which includes creating family plans when severe weather hits.
Fullingim discussed concerns about the storm shelters last month with Norman City Council members. At that time, Council member Tom Kovach said he wanted to keep the shelter at Whittier open for the mobile home park nearby. Fullingim said that’s not feasible.
Despite the proximity of Whittier to the mobile home park, the city cannot designate that shelter strictly for the use of mobile home residents while keeping the rest of the public out.
During school hours, school security also becomes an issue. Areas of the schools are designated as safety spots for school children, not for people at large, Fullingim said. School officials cannot have strangers mingling with school children.
He said the areas where the general public is allowed to seek shelter may not be storm safe.
“They’re just buildings,” Fullingim said. “What we’re doing may provide a false sense of security.”
Fullingim said he learned that people travel from other communities to seek shelter in Norman.
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. In cases such as the tornado that hit Norman on April 13, the advanced warning didn’t happen.
“The idea of going somewhere else to seek shelter does not work out,” Fullingim said. “The national trend is shelter in place and provide your own safety plans.”
The city will keep its shelters open through this spring season so no one travels to a shelter only to find it closed, but this likely will be the last season Norman has designated public storm shelters.
“There would have to be a good effort made to make sure people know,” Fullingim said on closing Norman’s four shelters. “I do believe we would have to have an aggressive public education campaign.”
Firefighters will install smoke detectors and will include severe weather preparedness as part of that boots-on-the-ground public education campaign.
Fullingim said firefighters will visit all of Norman’s mobile home parks March 9. The fire department also will work with multi-family homes on tornado safety.
“We contact every apartment complex and do fire inspections, as it is,” Fullingim said. “We could have a meeting for the tenants to give them ideas and help them with their plans. We have a large volunteer group that is interested in helping.”
Fullingim also said tornado sirens are designed to warn people who are outside to seek shelter. Many people inside homes may not hear the sirens.
People in homes should listen to a NOAA weather radio, watch local television broadcasts and keep 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.”