COVID-19: Maintaining distance, but storm-ready in Shawnee
While Oklahomans are notorious for their ability to roll with the punches — especially during storm season, this year's addition of COVID-19 precautions offers a brand new twist for everyone. With all the social distancing measures being taken, how will residents honor that mandate as they gather inside shelters for safety during a storm?
Some of that may not even become an issue, as Shawnee doesn't have public storm shelters; family units who are already in close quarters would continue to be that way in their own cellars.
But not everyone has a cellar; some sharing on a small scale is likely.
“If someone does not have a shelter, we strongly encourage our citizens to make contact with a neighbor, friend or family member who does have a shelter to know exactly where to go during severe weather,” Shawnee City manager Chance Allison said. “The City continues to encourage social-distancing during severe weather and we support the use of breathable masks inside storm shelters to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
The city's top priority is to its citizens' health and safety, he said, and as such the city would never encourage anyone to put themselves in harm's way during severe weather.
“As usual, we encourage our citizens to stay weather aware and each household should have their plan of action of what to do during severe weather outbreaks,” Allison said. “For those who have storm shelters, citizens should check to make sure it is clean and supplies such as non-perishable food, water, weather radio, flashlights with extra batteries, personal hygiene items, and a first aid kit are available in the shelter in advance.”
Shawnee recently approved a new outdoor warning system, which will be installed at some point soon.
“Our new emergency warning sirens are currently being manufactured by our vendor to be installed this spring,” Allison said. “The existing tornado sirens are still functioning — as they always have — until replacement.”
Shawnee Police Department Public Information Officer Cpl. Vivian Lozano-Stafford said the city will begin testing its Early Warning System (tornado sirens) at noon on Saturdays. This is a change from previous schedules.
“The test will not be done unless the weather is mostly clear,” she said. “A test will sound no longer than one minute; during an actual emergency the sirens will sound between three and five minutes.”
Every year, Shawnee/Pottawatomie County Emergency Management Director Don Lynch encourages the community to have a safety plan, multiple ways to receive weather bulletins and a family disaster supplies kit that will help residents weather storms when the season arrives.
“This time of year it is important for people to have a safety plan and to be weather aware,” he said. “Even if the tornado risk is low, severe thunderstorms can and occasionally produce tornadoes with little or no warning.”
Lynch said people should monitor the weather and be prepared to take action if conditions warrant.
“We recommend that everyone have at least two ways to receive weather bulletins,” Lynch said. “A NOAA Weather Radio can provide you with information directly from the National Weather Service office in Norman.”
He said these radio receivers typically can be obtained from electronics stores, Walmart and Homeland stores for around $35.
“Those radios containing the Specific Area Messaging Encoder (SAME) feature can be programmed to alert you when the specific counties are warned,” he said.
Commercial television and radio can provide you with warnings and updated information.
“All of our local television stations have apps you can download for your smart device to provide you with warnings,” Lynch said. “Apps are also available from the National Weather Service, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, and the American Red Cross.”
Lynch said it’s vital to think about tornado safety long before there’s a storm on the horizon.
“Plan what to do to stay safe no matter where you may be when storms threaten,” he said.
When a severe storm or tornado threatens, some basic guidelines, he 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,” 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.”
Allison said residents can register their shelters with the City of Shawnee for public safety to be aware of each location at http://www.shawneeok.org/government/departments/emergency_management/register_your_storm_shelter!.php.
Lynch said there are other severe thunderstorm hazards that people need to prepare for just as much as tornadoes.
“Large hail, damaging winds, and flooding rainfall can prove to be destructive,” he said. “So these risks should be included in your severe weather plans.”
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
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
Given the current shelter-at-home requirements, many residents may already be stocked with food and water for a long stay, but preparing for a disaster also requires certain items specifically useful in a severe weather situation.
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
Lynch said more information is available at the following websites: Weather.gov<http://Weather.gov>; Ready.gov<http://Ready.gov>; RedCross.org<http://RedCross.org>; and at the City of Shawnee website: www.shawneeok.org
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. If local news is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Shawnee News-Star at news-star.com/subscribe.]
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Terms to know
• A Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm Watch means that atmospheric conditions are favorable for the development of severe weather in and close to the watch area. You should watch the weather and be prepared to implement your safety plan, should conditions worsen.
• A Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm Warning means that Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm has been detected by National Weather Service RADAR or has been reported by trained spotters in the field. You should immediately implement your severe weather safety plan.
Information provided by Shawnee/Pottawatomie County Emergency Management Director Don Lynch.
Essential Items for Your Emergency Kit
Ready.gov recommends that a basic 72-hour emergency kit contain the following supplies:
Water (at least one gallon per person, per day)
Battery-powered or hand-powered radio and extra batteries
First aid kit
Whistle (to signal for help)
Baby wipes, garbage bags, and twist ties (for sanitation)
Solar cell phone charger
Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
Plastic sheeting and duct tape, or emergency tents