The Moore American

March 25, 2014

Weather service assesses tornado preparedness

The Moore American

MOORE — By Joy Hampton

Senior Staff Writer

NORMAN — Weather warnings save lives. The 28 or so employees at Norman’s Weather Forecast Office know that and dedicate themselves daily to improving tornado, flood and other extreme weather predictions. Friday, that hard work and dedication were recognized in a report of best practices following the May 2013 tornado season.

Seldom has the need for early warnings been as extreme as they were when a series of tornadoes and flooding hit the Norman and Oklahoma City metro area on May 19, 20, and 31. For at least 47 people, those 13 days of active storm weather in 2013 were deadly.

Historic level flash flooding in Oklahoma City on May 31 caused more fatalities than the tornadoes on that day.

Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service released an assessment of Norman’s Weather Forecast Office’s performance before and during the event.

According to the assessment, WFO Norman performed “well above the NWS’s 2013 goal for national tornado and flash flood.”

“The intent of this report is to provide the National Weather Service with information to help us improve our operations across the country, ” said Warning Coordination Meteorologist Rick Smith, a Norman resident who also served on a team that recently helped Norman schools assess their response and future preparedness.

Smith said the assessment is mostly good news and underlines best practices that helped save lives through early warnings, then provided ongoing information during events and helped direct emergency managers to damaged areas.

“What worked well here can also be used across the nation,” Smith said.

NWO Norman’s performance included 55 tornado warnings and hundreds of statements and social media posts issued from May 19 to May 31, with an average lead time of nearly 21 minutes. The investigating team found that 87 percent of all the tornadoes that occurred during the time frame were preceded by a warning. In the case of the flash flooding, 91 percent were preceded by warnings that averaged an 84 minute lead time.

“It’s our job,” Smith said. “It’s what we’re here to do. We have about 28 people who work in the office who worked as a team to have those successes.”

Social media played a vital role in those warnings and is outlined as a best practice in the findings. Using a dedicated Facebook page, warnings are posted that people can tune into via smart phones and other mobile devices when the power goes out.

On an event-by-event basis, the office team edits the content of the social media posts to increase effectiveness, the assessment team found. WFO Norman did not provide hourly, short-term text weather discussion, choosing to put more emphasis in social media.

“We’re staffed 24 hours a day, so we’re monitoring our Facebook page constantly,” Smith said.

Preparedness and awareness are key, and people should not rely solely on social media.

“You need at least three different ways to get a warning,” Smith said.

Keep phones charged when bad weather is predicted, he advised. A battery-operated weather radio also is a good source of information if cell towers are damaged or if the lines get jammed. Following the Moore tornado, service was disrupted for many people.

When tracking information on Facebook, stick with the National Weather Service Norman Facebook page.

“That’s our page that we control,” Smith said. “We can’t control what people do on their own Facebook pages. We were doing updates sometimes every three minutes and providing very detailed information.”

Smith said forecasters also were working with the mass media to get the information out. Sending a consistent message with safety guidelines is key, he said.

Despite the positive findings, Smith said it’s hard to get excited about something that took such a heavy toll on people.

“We still had considerable loss of life and lots of people injured,” Smith said. “People’s lives are changed forever because of those storms. Our ultimate goal is to have those numbers as low as possible — no deaths, no injuries.”

People can do their part to stay safe by staying informed about incoming weather.

“I’m proud of this office and the work that we do, but we’re always looking forward,” Smith said.

Forecasters are hoping for a quiet spring this year.

“Everybody, from the meteorologists to the people who live in the community, need more time to recover from last May,” Smith said. “Our office is ready for whatever happens. We are fully engaged in planning, practicing and training for whatever happens next. We’re hopeful but realistic.”