By MJ Brickey
McALESTER — At the moment Pittsburg County is under a tornado watch, which means current weather conditions are capable of producing tornadoes, accordng to national Weather Service.
Friday, weather is expected to be partly cloudy with the temperature climbing to a high of 86 degrees, but for the last few weeks, severe weather and thunderstorms have scared Oklahomans statewide.
On May 19, tornadoes destroyed parts of Carney and Shawnee and then on May 20, an EF5 twister caused massive devastation in the city of Moore, near Oklahoma City. A tornado warning was also issued for southern Pittsburg County as more than 20 severe storm cells moved through the area that weekend.
This week, on Wednesday and Thursday, thunderstorms came through Pittsburg County with plenty of wind gusts, rain, thunder and lightning producing quite a show. But the storms had not produced severe weather by the time this story was prepared for publication Thursday, and there had been no reports to the McAlester/Pittsburg County Office of Emergency Management this week of storm damage to homes or private property.
Frank Phillips, community affairs manager for Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said there were small power outages in various locations in the area Wednesday and Thursday, with the most significant affecting about 475 customers starting at around 11 p.m. Wednesday. He said power was restored to approximately 425 of those customers by around midnight Thursday morning and the other 50 by 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
Phillips said lightning was a factor in the outages. One line hit by lightning fell across U.S. Highway 69 where Wade Watts and George Nigh Expressway meet, he said. The McAlester Police Department blocked traffic while PSO crews repaired the fallen line, according to Phillips.
Only four customers remained without power by early Thursday afternoon: two in Stuart and two in McAlester, he said.
Jerry Earp, owner of Liberty Theatre in Hartshorne where storm spotters had reported straight-line winds last week, said the facility was damaged by wind. He said the theater’s marquee sign and roof were damaged on May 20, and several rows of seats within the theater were also damaged.
Last week’s storms brought approximately 5 inches of rain to Pittsburg County, according to Trent Myers, director of OEM for McAlester and Pittsburg County. Wednesday’s storms, he said, brought a little more than 2 inches.
Meanwhile, Myers said all storm sirens maintained by OEM are in operational order, have been tested and will work in the event of severe weather.
However, he said some Pittsburg County communities maintain their own outdoor storm sirens and he could not comment on the condition of those. Sirens operated by communities, and not OEM, include those in Kiowa, Haileyville, Hartshorne, Arpelar, Adamson, Crowder, Indianola, Shady Grove and Bugtussle, Myers said.
The storm expert said sirens are only meant to be heard from outside of a home and are among many tools to help people get out of the weather and to seek shelter from severe weather. Residents should also keep a weather radio with well-charged batteries nearby to monitor for severe weather watches and — most importantly — warnings.
Myers said the National Weather Service changed its criteria for classifying watches and warnings.
“A ‘watch’ means exactly what it says — a watch,” Myers said, “meaning weather conditions are favorable for severe weather, so watch for it.
“A ‘warning’ means severe weather is happening and to take shelter immediately.”
Since the NWS change, warnings issued have been reduced by two-thirds, Myers said.
He said the NWS changed the warning criteria so that people will take warnings more seriously. Many times warnings were issued and people would not take shelter because there were no signs of severe weather where they were or they didn’t feel that what they were seeing was severe enough to take shelter.
Myers also said warnings were sometimes issued early and people would emerge from shelter as the worst part of a severe weather event was beginning.
The criteria NWS now uses for a warning is that hail be 1 inch in diameter or larger and/or that winds be more than 70 miles per hour, he said.
Severe weather includes tornadoes, large hail, straight-line winds and microbursts.
Myers said NWS Doppler radar detects storm activity at 8,000 feet above Pittsburg County, which he said means it can tell if conditions are favorable or likely but can not detect tornadoes, hail, straight-line winds or microbursts.
In Pittsburg County, he said the NWS relies solely on the eyes of storm spotters for severe weather warnings.
During the May 20 storms, eight storm spotters scoured Pittsburg County, Myers said. They call in any rotation, tornados, hail, straight-line winds or microbursts to the NWS.
Myers also said local authorities and emergency workers report any storm damage they see, but if damage happens to a home or other property, it should be reported to the OEM at any time at 918-423-5655.
Contact MJ Brickey by email at email@example.com.