I wrote an extended essay after a tornado developed near my home late at night in 2009. The local sirens weren't sounded until well after the tornado began, apparently because no one was in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to push the button. On 13 April 2012, a tornado developed just west of Norman and moved across the heart of the city, wrapped in rain. It turned out to be a weak tornado (EF-1), fortunately. It dissipated not far from my home. The sirens again were not sounded until the tornado was well into the city - apparently again because no one was staffing the EOC. Just how "storm ready" can Norman actually be if this is their track record in threatening situations? Why was there no one already at the EOC in these situations? Having an EOC is not very meaningful if there's no one there to operate the facility.
Sirens are not the best means of disseminating tornado warnings, but Norman recently spent a fair sum to install new sirens. Was this the best possible way to use that money? I think not. Apparently, from what I heard, the mayor made that decision on her own, basically, for reasons unknown to me. I'd like to see the general public wean themselves of their dependence on sirens as their sole means to alert them of approaching hazardous weather. Yes, sirens might still have a useful function, but people shouldn't be accustomed to depending on them alone to obtain information about the weather. Whatever I might think about the efficacy of sirens for tornado warnings, however, these two recent incidents seem to suggest that Norman is not so ready for storms as their resume might suggest.
What does "storm ready" really mean? As I see it, the NWS criteria don't go nearly far enough to establish a meaningful preparedness level for communities to meet. To be truly ready, communities need to do much more! For example, who has reviewed and approved the tornado plans in place in the local public schools? Have those plans been evaluated by someone independent of the school who actually has the qualifications to know what's needed? Dr. Matt Biddle and I have done some informal snooping around in schools over the years and found several disturbing things:
- Many schools don't have a functioning weather radio
- The designated shelters in many of the schools I've investigated have serious problems that would endanger anyone sheltering there
- Schools often have suitable shelter spaces that are unnecessarily unavailable for use - e.g., interior rooms filled with stored items
- The structural integrity of school buildings is not always known, so any structural defects that could affect safety need to be identified by someone competent and those flaws fixed
- Some of the tornado plans I've seen contain fundamental flaws that could put children and staff at risk
In my experiences here in Norman, the politicians seemed distinctly uninterested in taking full advantage of the numerous subject matter experts in the university and the Norman Weather Center. Similarly, it seems many of those experts have little interest in contributing to the improvement of the community's preparations for storm hazards. That this is the case here in Norman seems incredible to me. How can we presume to lecture to others about what to do to prepare for storms, when our own community is not a shining example of what can and should be done? Is Norman truly storm ready? I don't think so! That should be an embarrassment to everyone.