A little more than two years before statehood a violent twister left 97 dead in its path and ravaged areas including the community of Snyder. Less than two years after the end of World II, a wide, violent tornado shredded its way through the Texas Panhandle and into northwest Oklahoma, killing 116 people and leaving devastation in areas of communities, including Woodward.
In 2007, Oklahoma City ranked on the list of fattest cities in America, according to Men’s Fitness magazine.
In either case, Oklahoma could have believed “You can’t win.” Be content with whatever the weather or your waist brings you, “It doesn’t matter” as was written in “The Outsiders.”
Instead, while neither has been fully conquered, the advancements have been significant and others have and are taking notice.
In May 1973, a devastating tornado ripped through Union City in central Oklahoma. For the first time, Doppler radar and storm intercept teams documented the entire life cycle of the tornado. “In reviewing the data, researchers discovered that a small-scale Doppler velocity circulation appeared aloft even before the tornado descended to the ground — a feature that would allow forecasters to better warn the public of the impending danger,” according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman.
After the magazine ranking as the eighth fattest city in America, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett challenged Oklahoma City to collectively lose 1 million pounds. In January Cornett announced that city residents had collectively lost 1 million pounds since January 2008.
But again, these are mile markers, not destinations.
The National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office, warned residents days in advance of the possibility of large tornadoes on both May 10, 2010 and May 24, 2011. Tornadoes up to an EF4 struck on May 10 and those up to the magnitude of an EF5 hit May 24. The National Weather Service continues to look to develop new ways to help before, during and after severe weather strikes.
Severe weather and severe weight problems ... better forecasting and better fitness. Learning to solve these two challenges are ever-present in our collective consciousness.
‘Has issued’ and will continue to issue ...
Most native Oklahomans can recite it with ease, “The National Weather Service in Norman has issued a ...” and fill in the weather threat from there.
But in a state where weather seldom sticks to a script, those charged with informing and warning its residents are never in a holding pattern.
“Part of it’s institutional, going back to the late ’80s or early ’90s with the relationship with NSSL, with the development of Doppler Weather radar,” said Mike Foster, meteorologist in charge with the National Weather Service, Norman Forecast Office. “The operational test of the Doppler Weather radar took place here. And this office moved pretty rapidly to adapt our warning program to take advantage of what the Doppler radar brought to us.”
Norman was also a forerunner to what is considered the modern National Weather Service Forecast Office by testing a lot of high-speed communications, big data sets and modern work stations.
But the never-ending issue is, “How do we take those things and adapt those to our biggest problem,” Foster said.
And most people know what this is.
For the most part the biggest high-impact forms of weather in the state are very strong thunderstorms and tornadoes.
“It’s not that the other things don’t have impact, we know they do and we work on them,” he said. “However, the strong thunderstorms and tornadoes have been a focus for us and we’ve spent a lot of time developing ideas and techniques, not with the intent of leading the weather service but as a very practical, pragmatic approach of, ‘This is our biggest problem and how do we use these things to solve our biggest problem?’”
While Doppler radar is a term the public may be familiar with, there are other aspects that have been developed in Norman that play important roles for National Weather Service staffs in offices across the country.
This includes situational awareness, which is the idea of paying attention to more than just the radar. It’s a matter of thinking not only about the cause but the effect. What’s the community doing with the weather information they are receiving? Or what effect might the weather play in regards to various emergency situations?
David Andra, Science and Operations Officer at the Norman Forecast Office, said he was supposed to go to a radar committee meeting in southwestern Oklahoma on April 19, 1995. But word began to circulate that there had been an explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
“At that time the Forecast Office had a portable television in the back room,” he said.
“We hauled it out and did the antenna thing until we could get a picture on it and we were like ‘Holy cow, half that building is gone.”
You couldn’t really develop a picture of all that was going on.
Foster said situational awareness is about developing a whole context for the problem and then projecting that into the future as far as an outcome and asking, ‘How can you interact with that?’ and provide a supporting service of some sort.
Developing that first picture is very difficult.
Foster said Andra had a lot to do with contacting the incident commander who immediately set up in downtown.
You might ask “How would the National Weather Service be of assistance?”
Well, that’s where situational awareness comes into play. April 19 turned out to be a day with severe storms.
Meteorologists knew there were tornadoes to the south and severe thunderstorms were approaching Oklahoma City that could affect the rescue and recovery operation.
So the weather service made sure it had personnel who could brief the incident commander and his staff about what was going on with the threatening weather.
Because of these continuing advancements, the Norman Forecast Office is recognized as a forerunner not only nationally, but around the world.
When asked to name where visitors have come from, Rick Smith, the Norman Forecast Office warning coordination meteorologist, replied, “Where haven’t we ... had visitors from?”
Foster named just a few, including South Korea, South Africa, Germany and Australia. There are many more
“I think we’re on the cutting edge of operations for high-impact weather,” Foster said. “We see ways it can be done and the way these problems can be addressed.
“You’ve got to be good at the things that happen fast and we try to do that.”
Some in Oklahoma have crafted something new while others are have taken an existing idea and molded it to fit the needs of their neighbors.
One such example of the latter is a shared-bike program called Spokies.
Bicycle lanes are part of downtown Oklahoma City’s Project 180 and this program intends to put them to use.
Jennifer Gooden, the sustainability director for the City of Oklahoma City, said the program first came about in 2009, listed as part of the Downtown Strategic Initiative as a way to improve downtown and especially transportation in downtown.
That year, the city received a federal block grant that included the bike-share program as part of its energy efficiency conservation strategy, she said. It also promotes fitness.
Spokies will allow members to use bikes at six stations throughout downtown free for a half-hour and $2 per half-hour after that. Yearly memberships would be $75, monthly passes $20 and one-day access $5.
The nonprofit Downtown OKC will administer Spokies.
Gooden and City Manager Jim Couch have said the goal is for Spokies to break even using the sponsorship money and its own revenue, and success could result in more stations downtown and elsewhere. Stations and bikes are set to be in place by May 1, with Spokies’ official launch on May 18, known as Bike to Work Day.
The goal is to have about 95 bicycles publicly available.
“You can check out a bike at one station and return it to the same station or a different one if you want to take one-way rides,” Gooden said.
While other cities have a bike-share program, Oklahoma City is capitalizing on Project 180, a four-year program to basically redo all of the streets, and sidewalks, and parks and plazas in downtown.
Part of that is improving appearance. Another part of it is making the area much more friendly to walkers and bicyclists, she said. As part of making it more bike friendly is the addition of the dedicated striped bike lanes.
“If you look downtown you can see this total transformation of Oklahoma City and other cities are definitely taking notice of that,” Gooden said. “So all of this is a part of making Oklahoma City a really attractive city for people who are looking for a great place to live and to work.”