McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

March 25, 2014

Tornado review: Public not aware of flash flooding

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma residents caught in severe weather last May said they knew what to do for tornadoes or flash floods, but not for both at the same time, according to a report released Friday examining a series of storms that killed nearly 50 people.

The assessment, which is an effort to help forecasters prepare for the spring storm season, says the National Weather Service needs to develop procedures for when there are combinations of weather hazards.

Although the weather service warned about the potential for flash flooding during the May 31 storm in the Oklahoma City metro area, many people said they weren’t aware of it and were caught off guard. More people ended up dying in the flooding than in the tornado.

“They felt television weather broadcasters chose to focus on the tornadoes and not the flash flooding,” according to the assessment of the weather service’s performance. “In fact, those interviewed indicated the flash flooding was a surprise and they did not know how to respond to the dual warning.”

One woman said she and seven other people took shelter in a small underground cellar until it started filling with water. Asked if she knew about the flash flood warning, she said no, and that her first indication that flooding was a potential problem was the encroaching water.

The report, prepared by weather service meteorologists, social scientists and emergency managers, recommends that the weather service develop a protocol for when there are multiple severe weather elements. It also says the weather service should educate broadcasters on how to disseminate information when there is a combination of bad weather.

Eight people died in the May 31 tornado while 13 people died in the flash flooding. Among those killed were three experienced storm chasers, who were considered very safety-minded, the report said. Tim Samaras, his son, Paul, and Carl Young were killed when the powerful tornado turned on them as they were conducting research.

When conducting spotter training, the report says, the weather service should remind potential storm chasers that no amount of information is worth their lives.

Twenty-four people died in the May 20 storm that hit Moore, while two people died in the May 19 storm.

The report also found that social media users find the Norman office’s “aggressive” use of social media valuable. The office has been at the forefront of using social media in disseminating weather-related information, and during the May storms dedicated one staff member to posting to Facebook and Twitter — sometimes as many as 20 posts in one hour.

“We were extremely aggressive, more aggressive than we’ve ever been in getting information out on the 19th, 20th and 31st (of May),” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service’s Norman office.

Social media users said the postings helped some of them know how to prepare for that day’s severe weather, the report said.

Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter @kristieaton.

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