Violent tornadoes strike: How to help and how I feel

In May of 1999, I was a 22-year-old college girl heading to a summer internship in Norman, OK.  The summer was a huge one for me, including such milestones as meeting my future husband and being mentored by some of the greatest minds in weather.  A couple of weeks before I arrived, on May 3, a series of violent tornadoes raked Oklahoma, including an F5 that crossed the Oklahoma City metro area.  One of the first things we did after a few of us summer interns met each other was examine the damage path in Moore and surrounding areas.  I had never been around real tornado damage before, despite having followed tornadoes for years from a distance.  I was simply stunned by the blocks and blocks of scrubbed foundations, debris piles, mangled cars, bits of insulation and nails and wood splinters, and mud.  Seeing that devastation firsthand, and standing in the midst of it, is humbling and frightening and emotional in a way that I still struggle to put into words.  Every storm I have chased, every warning I have issued, I have always kept that picture in my mind of what the worst looks like.  This is why I do what I do — to give people a chance to get somewhere safe when the worst weather is approaching.

At about 3pm CDT today (May 20), my husband burst into the bedroom.  I was at the tail end of a deep post-mid-shift sleep and a little groggy when he apologized for waking me up, then flipped his laptop so I could see the screen and said, “This is in the Oklahoma City metro.  Right now.”  My sleepy brain was trying to sort out whether he was looking at footage from tornadoes just the day before or live, new footage.  I hoped for the former, but it was the latter.  Between the live coverage of the tornado as it spun across Moore and eastward and the live coverage on CNN and local Oklahoma City TV stations from that point onward, we were transfixed.

It’s hard to describe the range of emotions I felt while watching that coverage of this year’s probable EF5 hitting Moore.  Again.  I shed tears over the images of the elementary school where many children survived… and many did not.  My heart lifted with a picture of a dog who survived the storm and sank with a story of a horse farm that lost almost all of its horses.  My gut wrenched with the images of block after block of exposed foundations and shredded lives.  I got angry at the CNN anchor who harped on an erroneous bit of information about the amount of warning that folks in Moore had, and felt vindicated when she was corrected by a congressman and a lieutenant governor who praised the meteorologists. I burst with pride as my cohorts at NWS Norman, some of whom I know personally, worked their tails off despite knowing that their own homes and friends and colleagues may have been impacted by the tornado.

Norman, Oklahoma, and its surroundings will always be close to my heart.  Seeing another violent tornado strike the area feels like reopening a wound.  My heart goes out to those who were in and near the damage path… to the first responders who are saving lives while witnessing unspeakable horrors… to the meteorologists who put the needs of the citizens ahead of their own needs and work their tails off to give the best possible warnings for events like this… to the medical staffs trying to heal and comfort the injured… to the volunteers who are giving up time in their own lives to aid those in need… to the region that is bearing the brunt of the third violent tornado in 14 years.

In the early wake of the latest weather tragedy, I have a few thoughts and points I want to make.

1.  Preparing for the worst weather is the only way you can survive it.  Wherever you are, know what you would do if a tornado (or hurricane, flash flood, blizzard, or other weather hazard) threatens you.  Know your geographical location by both city and county so that you’ll know if you’re in the path of a storm — and be sure you know these when you’re traveling, too.  Know the escape routes if you have enough warning to get out of the way.  Pay attention to updated weather information (I, of course, am biased toward NWS as an information source).  Own a NOAA weather radio, keep it plugged in with fresh backup batteries, and activate its settings to alert you when warnings are issued.  Download weather applications to your smartphone that warn you of bad weather.  Once those warnings hit and you hear about them, vow to heed the warnings and take immediate action to save the lives of you, your family, and if possible, your pets, rather than waiting to “see it for yourself”.  Know where the storm shelter is, and USE IT!

2.  Leave the storm chasing and picture taking to the people who have the meteorological training to understand and anticipate storm behavior.  Stay in safe places during stormy weather, and don’t try to join the masses of people who grab their smartphones and head out to get pictures of the “big one”.  Get off the roads, or at the very least, if you’re driving to get out of the storm’s path, keep driving until you’re well clear of it.  No picture or video is worth your life.  Cars are sitting ducks during tornadoes, and once you’re threatened while in your car, there’s no truly safe escape.  Never, ever park underneath an overpass for shelter.  Never, ever stop your car on a road or block an intersection — get into a parking lot (or driveway, etc.) or all the way off the road if you’re stopping.

3.  I’ve seen a lot of people post something to the effect of, “All I can do is pray.”  That couldn’t be farther than the truth.  Pray or reflect or send good thoughts, if it brings you comfort, but also take action to bring assistance and relief to the victims of these weather tragedies.  Donate money to the Red Cross or other reputable relief organizations.  (You can donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting the word REDCROSS to 90999, or $10 to the Salvation Army by texting the word STORM to 80888.  Monetary donations are always the most needed type of help after a disaster.)  Donate blood, especially if you’re in the region and have time in the next few days.  Start an item donation drive at your local workplace/church/community center/etc., and donate needed items to the victims (most of the time, the local Red Cross will post lists of needed items like clothes, baby supplies, food, etc. – just be sure that the items you’re collecting are items that were requested by local relief organizations).  Join a volunteer effort to rebuild homes.  Don’t just pray — act!

I don’t have a lot of Laura in this post.  Just a desire to help stricken neighbors and be prepared for next time.  Which maybe is a lot of Laura, after all.

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2 Responses to Violent tornadoes strike: How to help and how I feel

  1. Kristi Patel says:

    Very good advice.. Thank you for your continued expertise

  2. Agnes says:

    Hi, again,

    Actually you do have Laura in this post – specifically in item 3. Clearly, she and her family had to be very practical to survive as pioneers and many of their stories tell of neighbors and communties working together. It even makes people like the female “Olesons” stand out even more for not just not helping, but in actively tearing at the sense of community.

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