NORMAN — The Canadian River protects Norman from tornadoes.
Tornadoes follow the river to Norman.
Blessings upon an Indian burial ground protect the city from twisters.
Topography places some Norman areas more at risk than others.
All of the above, as well as other thoughts, were shared as about 20 people gathered in Norman recently for the first of three scheduled Tornado Town Hall meetings conducted by representatives of the University of Oklahoma, the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies and the National Weather Service.
The purpose of the meeting at the Norman Public Library, as well as one to follow later this month in Moore and another Oct. 4 in Newcastle, is for weather experts to better understand thoughts and perceptions of Oklahomans they are serving. This is just the start, and other meetings may be added.
“I think we heard some very interesting comments from the folks who came to our first meeting,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office after the first Tornado Town Hall. “I don't think there were any big surprises, but it was very interesting to hear how people perceive how tornadoes behave. For this first meeting, there were quite a few meteorologists who attended, but we did a pretty good job of staying quiet and listening, which is what these meetings are all about.
“People's perception of tornado risk is based on a variety of things including stories they've heard, personal experiences and their own observations of where tornadoes happen and what they do. Our goal is not to tell people any of this is wrong.”
Bought a shelter
Ann Riley has lived in Norman since 1974. She was about 1½ miles from one of the May 10, 2010, tornadoes. That marked the first time in her life she'd ever gone to a shelter. Her family bought a shelter after that.
What about that day changed your perspective?
“To be honest, I think we'd bought into the lore that Norman couldn't be hit by a tornado,” Riley said. “We'd always heard that. I think they said it was because the river kind of wraps around Norman. It seems silly now, it was probably just mathematical probability.”
Stephen Tremaine has lived in Norman his entire life, 27 years. At one time or another, he's heard it said that tornadoes hit the west side of Norman less often and that the river does protect the city.
“And you hear the person who thinks because there was some Indian tribe here at some point that they're not going to hit us here,” Tremaine said. “You've heard all of that over the years, and you kind of wonder how people react to that knowledge.”
The Tornado Town Hall project is led by Kim Klockow, of the OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences; Randy Peppler, of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, and Smith. Several other volunteers from the National Weather Center in Norman are involved.
Ila Faneros, of Norman, said for a long time she really didn't want to think about tornadoes hitting the city. That was before her son, Erik, was born 7 months ago. As a parent, she is more concerned about the possibility of a tornado.
“So I started looking into it,” Faneros said. “Norman didn't have tornadoes for a long time within the city limits and then they did have one, and so I was kind of curious because of all the myths I've heard about the burial grounds and the river. So I started doing some reading.”
She concluded one area of the Oklahoma City metro is as likely to get hit or not get hit as another.
Mike Simmons, who lives in south Oklahoma City, saw the devastation of the EF5 tornado May 3, 1999. He and his wife sought shelter in an area that wasn't hit. Their home sustained some damage and they were out of it for five months. But the storm destroyed other homes nearby and lives were lost.
During discussions at the meeting, Simmons said, “When you have the right mixture, you're going to have a tornado and its going to go anywhere it wants to go.”
Those attending the Tornado Town Hall were asked to fill out a form. The questions included ranking on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very low and 10 being very high, how tornado prone areas of Norman, Moore, Newcastle and central Oklahoma are, in their opinion.
Ryan Vaughn, of Norman, gave west Norman a 3. He said he wondered if a hill dropping off as it goes toward the Canadian River, “might mess with the wind patterns or something like that and make it more difficult for a tornado to maintain its shape.”
“That's sort of why I decided it was maybe a little less likely to be hit,” he said.
Peppler said if they are to serve the public in the most meaningful way possible, it is important to have some grasp of local thoughts about tornadoes.
“It is not our goal to dispel myths but to learn about what people know,” Peppler said, “including knowledge relating to particular places.”
That in turn will hopefully help those involved in weather-safety better communicate what they know, he said.