Monday, June 3, 2013

It Could Have Been Worse: Super Star Meteorologists, and Sitting Ducks

It could have been worse, but that is only if you weren't related to, or knew the 16 people who were killed Friday in the greater Oklahoma City area. The tornadic winds that came blasting out of the west weren't as fierce as on May 20th, but that was a minor consolation. It was a rogue beast that blew through El Reno on Friday--what they call a multiple vortex tornado--a Medusa's head of smaller twisters slithering around the core of the big one.

And it did everything that tornadoes normally don't do.

If you live on the southern plains for any length of time you tend to learn about the tendencies of these storms because someday you too might find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just about every native of central Oklahoma can and will tell you that tornadoes almost always track from southwest to northeast. They will also tell you that the very last place you want to be when one comes roaring down the road is in a car. Well, at least that is what they used to say.

Yes, the old rule was let the storm chasers run around out there. Everyone else needs to hunker down either in a shelter, or an inside room with as many walls between you and the elements as possible.

That changed on May 20th, 2013. On that date, for the first time, I heard a meteorologist advise people that if they couldn't get below ground they needed to jump in their cars and drive away from the storm.

The thing about this town is we are so conscious of the weather that local meteorologists have become elevated to near rock star status. The local affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox run endless ads featuring not only their super talented forecasters, but all the gadgets, radars, storm teams and helicopter pilots that are available to them. It isn't rare to see spots being run after a big one rolls through that has a survivor telling the audience that so and so saved their life because of his early and incredibly accurate warning of impending disaster.

In short the people in Oklahoma City tend to believe everything these guys say.

On May 31st, it all went wrong because the tornado, instead of heading off to the northeast, took a right turn and veered south. It was such a stunning development that even veteran storm chasers were caught flat footed in the path of it. Three, Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young were killed. A Weather Channel team was also taken by surprise. Their car was picked up, thrown two hundred yards and demolished, but incredibly they suffered only minor injuries.

At the height of the confusion Mike Morgan of the NBC affiliate KFOR went to the well once too often. Video of the coverage shows him saying, "If you live in south Oklahoma City please go below ground, or drive out of the way and go south."

For eleven days the people of Oklahoma City had been living with the apocalyptic scenes from Moore and the tornado of the twentieth. The destruction was beyond belief and the tales of those who died, especially the school children were seared into everyones brains. A number of people, far more than would have under normal circumstances, went ape shit. They followed Morgan's and perhaps other's instructions and took it on the lam. When they hit the interstates they ran smack into Friday rush hour traffic. The entire freeway system went into gridlock. Thousands of people had just become sitting ducks.

Yes, it certainly could have been worse. The storm hopped, skipped, and jumped and finally dissipated sparing untold numbers of people stuck in traffic. However what followed was a flood of nearly biblical proportions. Parts of the metro received eight inches of rain in just a few hours. Low lying streets and highway underpasses became ponds. Water poured into the basements of downtown buildings and parking garages.

At least six people who decided their homes weren't safe enough took shelter in covered drains, or under bridges. Rescue personnel are still searching for them as I type.

One would think the answer to much of this would be a series of neighborhood community shelters where people could flee to during a weather emergency. Midwest City, east of downtown OKC, used to have one at a place called the Reed Center which has a hotel attached to it. On May 20th a number of people found themselves turned away because the city had decided to close the facility as a public shelter. A story written by The Oklahoman's Bryan Dean said that one enterprising couple was allowed into the facility when they agreed to pay for a room at the hotel.

Dean quoted former sportscaster turned OKC mayor, Mick Cornett as saying, "I think there is a consensus community shelters and the chaos that would surround them the last few minutes before an approaching storm would probably create a bigger safety hazard than it would alleviate." What Cornett is talking about is when a shelter only holds 300 people and there are 600 clamoring to get in things could get ugly in a hurry.

Yes and then there is that old conservative philosophy of, "why should I worry about you?" Dean also quotes the Moore Emergency Management Director, Gayland Kitch as saying, "Ultimately you are responsible for your own safety."

In other words, if you're stupid enough to live in central Oklahoma get out there in the backyard and dig a fucking hole to jump into when things get weird. If you don't have a backyard buy one.

It has been a long couple of weeks. The tornado season usually winds down in mid June, however as we've just seen things don't always go the way they usually do.

Normally the city emergency people blow the warning sirens at noon on Saturdays. Two days ago they passed on running the test. Obviously we've found out they work and honestly, everyone around here has heard them too many times lately.

Trust me on that one.

sic vita est



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