Tornado season: Mask up when sharing shelter

Vicky O. Misa
The Shawnee News-Star
Stormy weather passing through Shawnee April 25, 2017.

Now that residents have spent more than a year learning to social distance, keep their faces covered, and get vaccinated, the thought of going into storm season again may seem like a breeze — compared to last year, when much about the pandemic was still unknown.

With continued social distancing measures and the city's mask ordinance, residents will again be expected to adhere to those precautions as they gather inside shelters for safety during a storm.

Fortunately, 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.

Storm clouds over Shawnee April 25, 2017.

As was the case last year, COVID-19 precautions became a central focus of protection around others, so social-distancing and mask-wearing is still being advised for everyone's safety. And the City of Shawnee is still under a mask mandate until June 30.

The city's top priority is to its citizens' health and safety, Allison 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.”

Now is the time to prepare a shelter with items needed in case of emergency — well before the sirens sound and everyone is scrambling to get to safety.

Some supplies could become necessary if debris causes residents to become trapped inside the shelter for a day or two while rescue efforts are underway.

Also, certain on-hand supplies could become a game-changer for residents if a tornado destroys their home.

Ready.gov recommends that a basic 72-hour emergency kit contain the following supplies:

  • Water (at least one gallon per person, per day)
  • Food
  • Battery-powered or hand-powered radio and extra batteries
  • High-powered flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Baby wipes, garbage bags, and twist ties (for sanitation)
  • Local maps
  • Solar cell phone charger
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape, or emergency tents

Registering a tornado shelter

In 2001, a voluntary program was initiated to catalog residential safe rooms and underground shelters in Pottawatomie County.

The goal was to help fire and rescue teams locate residents after a tornado.

Inspiration for the storm shelter registry came from a similar program in Midwest City.

When piles of debris surrounded homes affected by the May 3, 1999, tornadoes, Midwest City fire and rescue personnel spent a good deal of time searching through debris looking for victims who might have been trapped in underground shelters. Soon after, they created a registry.

“When we heard about the Midwest City program, we thought a similar program would be of great benefit to our county,” then-Emergency Management Director Don Lynch said at the time.

To register a shelter, visit shawneeok.org and fill out the online form.

2019, 2020 Oklahoma storm seasons

Storm seasons can vary greatly from year to year, as the past two years can testify; in Central Oklahoma one was significant, the other not so much.

According to data from National Centers for Environmental Information's (NOAA) storm prediction center, May 2019 was a banner year in the U.S. for twisters. Showing more than 550 preliminary tornado reports in 2019, the season experienced record-breaking numbers, compared May's annual average of 276.

“May 2019 has the second highest number of reported tornadoes for any month on record, only behind April 2011, which produced several tornado outbreaks across the Southeast and Midwest,” the NOAA site, at ncdn.noaa.gov, reads. “A majority of the May 2019 tornadoes occurred over many of the Central Plains and Midwestern states in three multi-day events (May 17-18, May 20-22 and May 26-29).”

In comparison, May of 2020 was well below the average, citing only 139 reports.

“May had the fewest number of severe weather reports since May 2014, as well as the fewest number of tornadoes and EF2+ tornadoes reported since at least 1970,” the site states.

In 2020, it appears most activity came early — in April.

“There were 341 preliminary tornado reports,” the site reads. “This is more than double the 1991-2010 average of 155 tornadoes for April.”

The most notable event during the month was an outbreak of at least 140 tornadoes from Texas to Maryland during April 12-13. Other days of tornado activity include April 7-8 where a combined 34 tornadoes affected southern Ohio, Indiana and northern Kentucky.

Storm clouds hover over Jefferson Elementary School Aug. 15, 2017.

For story ideas, questions or concerns, reporter Vicky O. Misa can be reached at vicky.misa@news-star.com.