Storm season means keeping a watchful eye out.
It's a long-held belief that the earlier awareness of impending danger is established — and the more prepared residents are before the fact — the better the chance for a positive outcome.
Shawnee/Pottawatomie County Emergency Management Director Don Lynch said having a safety plan, multiple ways to receive weather bulletins and a family disaster supplies kit will help residents weather the storm.
Though plans can be organized and supplies can be purchased well in advance, there is limited time when it comes to a storm front moving through the area; that's when paying close attention to news and radio reports become a high priority.
“We stress that citizens need two ways of receiving alerts,” Lynch said.
One of the recommended ways to receive alerts, he said, is a NOAA Weather Radio receiver with the Specific Area Messaging Encoder (SAME) feature.
“These radios are priced at around $30, depending on features, and are available at electronics retailers including Wal-Mart and Homeland locally,” Lynch said. “The SAME feature allows you to program the radio to activate only when alerts are issued for Pottawatomie County.”
Lynch said his office is happy to assist with programming the radio, if needed.
Also, links to several free emergency text alerts and apps — including the National Weather Service, American Red Cross and local television stations — are available on the City of Shawnee website, at shawneeok.org. Residents can sign up to receive current alerts. Many of these apps also offer the option on what types of alerts to choose (tornado, flooding, lightning, etc.).
“We have a provision in the proposed City budget for 2020 that will allow us to re-establish service with a vendor to provide mass-notifications to citizens that will deliver alerts to land line phones, as well as cell phones and text messages,” Lynch said. “It will take a couple of months after July 1 to get the service established and working.”
Lynch said his department has $250,000 in the Capital Outlay budget to add more devices and update system controls.
The City of Shawnee maintains a network of 20 outdoor warning devices — that includes three around the Shawnee Twin Lakes, which is also in City Limits, Lynch said.
“These devices weren’t designed to alert people who are in their homes,” he said. “They’re meant to warn people outside of possible danger. It is a common misconception that you should be able to hear the sirens inside of homes and structures. That may not necessarily be the case. It depends on your proximity to the device.”
The devices were made to provide an audible signal at 70 decibels. The wind, background noise, and terrain are factors which cause that sound level to vary from one location to another. Shawnee’s outdoor warning devices are sounded during severe weather when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for a tornadic storm that is approaching or in Shawnee, or when trained emergency management spotters sight a funnel cloud, persistently rotating wall cloud, or tornado in or approaching the city limits.
“If the devices go off during a thunderstorm, it means take your immediate safety precautions and seek additional information,” Lynch added. The City of Shawnee does not sound an all-clear signal. The devices are audibly tested at noon on Wednesdays when the sky is clear and weather permits.
“If we were under a severe weather watch at noon on a Wednesday, we would not audibly test the sirens,” Lynch said. The capability exists to silently test the devices when weather does not permit an audible test.
The Pottawatomie County Board of County Commissioners has placed outdoor warning devices in the communities of Dale, Johnson, Macomb, Saint Louis and Tribbey, Lynch said. These devices are operated in the same manner as the sirens in Shawnee.
Asher, Bethel Acres, Earlsboro, Maud, McLoud, Tecumseh, and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation also have outdoor warning devices in their communities. These devices are activated by their emergency management personnel, he said.
Lynch said a 72-hour disaster supplies kit is helpful in preparing to deal with the consequences of severe weather.
“You can find out how to build your 72-hour disaster supplies kit at www.ready.gov,” he said.
Scott Sproat, director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Service at the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH), said families who have members with medical conditions and disabilities need to consider any unique needs during and after a disaster.
“If you have, or care for someone, with a disability or access and functional needs, it’s especially important to include needed supplies, equipment and medications as part of your planning efforts,” Sproat said. “If evacuating from the home is necessary, it is important to take medication and specialty equipment such as hearing aids, oxygen, a wheelchair, diabetic supplies, food for a special diet or supplies for a service animal.”
OSDH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer the additional following tips for families preparing for disasters:
• Check with your mobile carrier for options on wireless emergency alerts being delivered to your cell phone or other device
• Practice your plan by quizzing your children periodically, and conduct fire and other emergency drills
• Check emergency supplies throughout the year to replace batteries, food and water as needed
• Plan alternate ways to charge communication and assistive technology devices if there is loss of power
• Plan for medication requiring refrigeration
When a severe storm or tornado threatens, some basic guidelines, Lynch said, are:
• Get in — get as far inside a strong building as you can, away from doors and windows.
“A reinforced underground storm shelter, storm cellar, enclosed basement or safe room rated to provide EF5 conditions protection in accordance with FEMA publication 361 are usually the safest places in a tornado,” he said. “Underground shelters get you out of the way of flying and falling debris, which is a tornado’s most lethal weapon.”
Being outdoors, in a mobile home or in a vehicle Lynch said are all unsafe in a tornado or severe thunderstorm.
• Get down — get to the lowest floor.
“If you cannot get underground, get as low as you can. Go to the lowest floor of the building you’re in,” he said.
• Cover up — use whatever you can to protect yourself from flying or falling debris.
“Cover up to protect yourself from flying and falling debris,” Lynch said. “Use whatever you can find — pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, mattresses; wearing a helmet or hardhat will help protect your head from debris.”
After a storm is over, gears shift immediately to search-and-rescue/clean-up efforts.
“We encourage Pottawatomie County residents to register their safe rooms at www.shawneeok.org/EmergencyManage/shelter/,” he said. “We will enter this information into a database that will be given to Search and Rescue personnel to assist them in locating persons who may be trapped in the shelter by storm debris.”
Lynch said tornadoes are not the only element worthy of preparation.
“Flooding is often a factor with severe thunderstorms,” he said.
Before a flood
• Find out if you live in a flood-prone area
• Plan and practice an evacuation route
• Have disaster supplies on hand
• Develop an emergency communications plan
• Learn about the National Flood Insurance Program
During a flood:
• Stay informed; turn on a battery-operated radio or television to get the latest emergency information
• If advised to evacuate, do so immediately
• Avoid walking through floodwater.
“Water only six inches deep can sweep you off your feet if it is moving swiftly,” he said.
• Do not drive into a flooded street. Cars can be swept away by two feet of moving water or there may be unseen damage to the road, he said.
“If you come to a flooded area, turn around and go another way,” Lynch said. “Most flood-related deaths are caused by people driving through water — remember, turn around; don't drown.”
• Watch out for fire hazards
After a flood:
• Take care of yourself first
• Dry out your home
• Restore the utilities
• Clean up
• Rebuild and flood proof
• Prepare for the next flood
• Protect yourself from the next flood with flood insurance, a flood response plan and community flood protection programs
Every year people are killed by lightning strikes in Oklahoma, Lynch said.
“Statistics show that about 50 bolts of lightning strike less than a mile from you each year in Oklahoma — about 1 million strikes per year across the state,” he said. “Your location when these strikes occur could greatly affect your chances of getting struck by lightning.”
Once thunder can be heard, he said lightning is close enough to strike.
“Go inside or get into a hard-topped vehicle,” he said.
If caught outside:
• Do not lie flat on the ground
• Crouch with feet together
• Do not seek shelter under trees
• Stay away from windows
• Don’t use the phone
• Stay away from electric appliances
• Stay away from water
• Unplug appliances to protect them
A boat is usually the highest object in its area, he said. “This situation makes boats especially vulnerable to lightning strikes,” Lynch said. “Get to shore and into a building, if possible.”
• Lower fishing poles and other tall objects
• Stay in a dry spot on the boat, if possible
• Do not touch electrical or metal objects
“The best way to protect yourself is to plan ahead so you’re not caught outside when storms threaten,” he said. “Also, be prepared to make a tough decision — to stop your golf game or your work when storms approach; when you think about it, the consequences of missing part of a golf game are a small price to pay for assured safety.”