In some ways the month hasn’t changed.
Lightning reflected off flood waters and exposed tornado debris as the month of May ended and June began in 2013.
There were 63 tornadoes in May 2013 in Oklahoma.
The more than five-dozen tornadoes ripped through metro areas, several other communities and rural Oklahoma.
By comparison, the average number of tornadoes for the month of May in the state is 22 based on official records since 1950.
Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Norman Forecast Office, said “To many of us in the office, it’s still May 2013.”
“I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since last May when we haven’t discussed, thought about, studied or reviewed what happened on those days,” Smith said. “And as spring 2014 rapidly approaches, we’re thinking about what we learned, and what we can do this spring to help the people of our area cope with severe weather and be safe and informed. From our perspective, the warning system worked very well on May 19, 20 and 31, but we still had loss of life.”
The Norman Forecast Office is responsible for weather information for 48 counties in northern, western, central and southern Oklahoma and eight counties in western and north Texas.
David Andra is the meteorologist in charge of the Norman Forecast Office, which is the National Weather Center.
“Ask anybody that has responsibilities for delivering warning information or providing for the public’s safety in a weather emergency,” Andra said, “the tragic events of May 2013 are still at the forefront of our minds and every day we work harder to take lessons learned and improve our services and response.
“Many of us, myself included, either had family or friends that were affected in some way. One can’t help but feel a personal connection to the various communities that lost so much last year. Out of that loss was an opportunity to learn and go forward; to be better prepared, to improve our forecasts and warnings, to better respond when and where disaster strikes in the months and years ahead.”
The Storm Prediction Center, also located in the National Weather Center, is a part of the National Weather Service’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The purpose of this office is to protect life and property of the American people by issuing timely, accurate watch and forecast products dealing with tornadoes and other weather hazards across the nation.
Specifically, they issue watches nationally and then the forecast offices issue warnings locally to their designated counties.
“The tragic events in central Oklahoma last spring were a stark reminder to each of us that there is more work yet to be done to fully reach our goal of a weather-ready nation,” said Russell Schneider, director of the Storm Prediction Center. “With our nationwide responsibility at the Storm Prediction Center we experience most tornado tragedies from a distant vantage point, but last spring we experienced the terrible impacts of these storms along with our own families and friends.”
While meteorologists are known primarily for forecasts, they also have a good sense of what follows tornado outbreaks and other severe weather.
“As we watch spring 2014 racing toward us, we know this spring is going to be very different for many people in our area,” Smith said. “Chances are if you live in central Oklahoma you were either impacted by the tornadoes directly, you know someone who was or you were exposed to a lot of horrible images and video of what happened.
“We probably have thousands of people who will look at storms, and weather information, very differently this spring versus last. We want to do everything we can to give people the information they need to stay safe, but also to let them know we are here watching out for them 24 hours a day.”
On average, there are 55 tornadoes a year in Oklahoma, according to the official records. While this includes EF0 to EF5, each is taken seriously, Smith said.
“Our office is part of what is probably the best severe weather forecasting team in the world,” Smith said. “You cannot beat the information that our partners in TV provide, and our emergency management and public safety agencies are the best of the best when it comes to dealing with tornadoes.
“If you have to live in a place where tornadoes happen, this is the place to live. But everyone has a role to play in tornado preparedness and survival. Warnings are only good if people hear them, believe them and act on them.”
May 2013 goes on
Schneider said that since last spring, the Storm Prediction Center continues to refine the predictive science and techniques that drive the severe weather forecast information they provide daily.
This includes placing an additional focus on how they can better communicate the risk of severe weather, “and how each of us can be best prepared should severe storms threaten our own homes, families, and friends.”
“To do this, we are partnering with researchers across the country and making improvements to our severe weather forecasts to better describe the severe weather likelihood and provide more information about expected threats,” Schneider said. “Our collaborative relationship with emergency management continues to grow stronger. We are working closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support prompt and effective national emergency response for future tragic events.
“FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate’s visit to Oklahoma after the tragedy in Moore helped us crystalize needs and move forward in a stronger partnership toward our critical shared goals.”
Smith said that after any big weather event, their office always reviews it, both as a staff and individually.
“There are a lot of people in the weather community across the country who are interested in how we handled the May storms,” Smith said.
“We’ve been invited to speak about our experiences by a lot of different groups: the National Weather Association, American Meteorological Society, at universities, conferences, workshops and events around the nation.
“I’ve done all of them I can, because I really want to tell the story of the work our staff and our partners did on those days,” Smith said.
Andra also referred to the American Meteorological Society meeting in Atlanta.
“Discussions and presentations stemming from the May tornadoes and flooding played a prominent role in the meeting,” Andra said. “This is only one example of many interactions we’ve had since May and will continue to lead in the future. Though the disasters occurred here, the lessons learned and resulting positive changes will be realized across the nation.”
Later this month, the National Weather Service is expected to release its final report investigating services provided by the weather community in Oklahoma leading up to and following the tornadoes and flooding last May.
“Recommendations from that report will serve as a template to improve the ability of our organization nationwide as we go forward,” Andra said.
In many ways, last May will transition right into this spring.
Reflection to reaction
Included in preparations are storm spotter training sessions the National Weather Service in Norman conducts each year to help prepare spotters for the upcoming severe weather season. The weather service conducts the training at the invitation of local emergency management officials. These officials organize the training and generally are responsible for maintaining their local storm spotter network.
Most of the training this year will be completed through online modules and live webinars, with more traditional live training classes conducted on a regional basis.
In all, 12 live spotter training classes were scheduled for February and in March across Norman’s coverage area.
Schneider points out that the risk of violent severe weather is year-round as shown by the terrible tornado outbreak in the Midwest last November.
“But as we approach the springtime severe weather season here in Oklahoma,” Schneider said, “you can be assured of our deep commitment to help save lives through a combination of science and service, to continuously monitor for potential dangerous weather conditions nationwide and to provide the public and our emergency partners advanced warning so that our communities and families can be prepared.”
Andra, like Smith and Schneider, said that while learning from last year, they have not lost sight of the fact “we are about to begin another severe weather season in Oklahoma.”
“The National Weather Service, along with our partners in the media, government, support organizations, and private sector will be ready when the time comes once again,” Andra said. “In the meantime, each of us has an opportunity to reflect on what another severe weather season means to us as individuals and to our communities.
“Now is the best time to consider our personal plans and actions for safety and be ready to act quickly and confidently the next time, whenever or where ever that might be.”
We probably have thousands of people who will look at storms, and weather information, very differently this spring versus last. We want to do everything we can to give people the information they need to stay safe, but also to let them know we are here watching out for them 24 hours a day.”
Warning coordination meteorologist,