The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 23, 2013

Mall event encourages severe weather preparedness

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Staying safe during the severe storms many Oklahomans associate with spring is as easy as paying attention to available information, a weather expert said Saturday.

Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the Norman office of the National Weather Service, said most people wait too long to take safe measures during severe weather.

Smith gave a presentation during the second annual Weather and Disaster Preparedness Day at Oakwood Mall.

“It’s an important time of year to start getting ready for storms,” Smith said. “You know, it’s not a question of if we’re going to get a tornado, it’s a question of when.”

He said the winds, hail and lightning associated with tornadoes actually do more harm to people than the tornado itself.

He said lightning is more harmful to people than a tornado, but even the National Weather Service doesn’t issue watches or warnings for it.

He then presented a slide with the motto: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

“If you’re close enough to see lightning,” he said, “You’re close enough to get struck.”

The Central Plains also see hail more frequently than other areas, and in larger sizes.

“It doesn’t usually hurt people, but it will,” Smith said. “The main problems with hail is the damages it causes to structures and cars.”

Overall, Smith said more people die from flooding caused by storms than from tornadoes, and it is the most common severe weather hazard.

“Flooding kills more people than lightning and anything else,” he said. “The majority of people who die from flooding die in their vehicles.”

The last tornado in Garfield County was recorded April 26, 2009. The last killer tornado reported in the county was May 2, 1979.

‘That’s good. That’s a good long stretch,” Smith said. “We want to keep that going.”

He said the reason tornadoes are so dangerous is the debris they carry. “When we tell you to take shelter in a tornado, that’s what we’re getting you out of,” Smith said.

In the United States, there is a yearly average of 1,100 reported tornadoes, and a yearly average of 56 deaths caused by tornadoes. Smith showed a map with every tornado ever reported. Although there were some gaps, he reminded the audience a tornado had to be seen and reported to make it onto the map.

“They can happen anywhere. Tornadoes go wherever they want to go,” Smith said.  “There are 50-55 tornadoes in Oklahoma a year, on average. “We’ve never had a single year in Oklahoma without a tornado.”

He said most tornados occur between 3 and 9 p.m., but he warned they can occur any time as long as conditions are right.

“The majority of tornadoes we see in Oklahoma are survivable as long as you do certain things,” Smith said.

Referring to the EF, or enhanced Fujita scale, Smith said the NWS can’t always predict which force of storm will hit.

“A lot of times you can’t tell how intense it’s going to be by looking at it,” he said. “Treat every tornado with respect. Just respect the storms. They’re not video games.”

He said as long as you pay attention to the information available, anyone can prepare for a storm.

“If you’re paying attention to the weather this time of year, you have days to prepare,” Smith said. “It almost never strikes without warning.”

He said weather outlooks give days of advance warning for storms. Watches give people as many as six hours to prepare, but warnings mean immediate action needs to be taken.

“If you make a plan today for storms, it’s going to be a lot less work when that siren sounds,” he said. “The warning is only successful if you do something about it. Don’t ever think it can’t ever happen to you.

“If you’re in a warning — act.”

With the amount of avenues to get weather information, Smith said people need at least three different ways. Outdoor storm sirens should not be one of the three avenues of alert.

“People over-depend on these too much,” Smith said. “Get yourself a weather radio. They’re $29 at Walmart and it will pay for itself quickly.”

Instead of a bunch of rules for staying safe in a storm at various locations, Smith said the NWS is simplifying its advice to: Get in, get down and cover up.

“Most people who die in tornadoes are struck by debris,” he said. Getting the most amount of space between you and the outside is the most important objective when taking shelter.

You want to be on the lowest floor, in a room with no outside walls, windows or doors.

Because buildings have changes and building materials have changed with them, dragging a mattress to the bathtub may not be the saving grace it once was.

“There is nothing magically safe about a bathtub at all,” Smith said. “The hallway is good, but you have to be sure you can close all the doors to it.”

Those who can avoid travel during severe storms should do so, Smith advised. Those who cannot avoid iy, should plan accordingly to find a safe place during a storm.