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Report: Despite warnings, residents were unprepared for May 31 flooding

by Silas Allen Published: March 22, 2014

Despite several National Weather Service alerts, the public was largely unprepared for the deadly flash floods that followed the May 31 tornado, according to a new report.

Although the agency released warning messages for days ahead of the storm, residents told investigators that they didn’t know flooding was on the way. In some cases, warning messages contradicted each other, leaving some residents unsure about how to respond to what would become the deadliest flooding in Oklahoma City history.

Residents also said local broadcast media chose to focus on tornadoes rather than the subsequent flash floods.

The service assessment report recommends National Weather Service officials develop better protocols to warn residents when more than one type of severe weather is on the way.

The report, released Friday, covers the tornadoes and other severe weather that struck the Oklahoma City metro area on May 19, 20 and 31. It includes recommendations and best practices based on what agency officials found to be effective and ineffective in their response to the storms.

In the report, the assessment team praised the Norman office’s preparedness for the storms in Shawnee, Moore and El Reno. It also highlighted the office’s use of social media to distribute information before, during and after the storms.

In particular, the report highlights a preliminary tornado track the office distributed to emergency managers, first responders and others during and immediately after the Moore tornado struck. The preliminary track saved the Federal Emergency Management Agency three to four hours of response time, according to the report.

But the report notes the office’s communication efforts ahead of the flash floods on May 31 were less effective.

In the hours leading up to the storm, the National Weather Service’s Norman office released several warnings about tornadoes, flash flooding and other hazards through social media, hazardous weather outlook alerts and other means.

But according to the report, residents in the area were mostly unaware of the possibility of flooding.

The tornado that struck El Reno on May 31 left eight people dead. But the flash flooding that followed the tornado killed 13 people, making it the deadliest flood in Oklahoma City history, and the deadliest flood in the state since 1984.

For the report, the agency’s service assessment team interviewed residents about how they prepared for the storms and what information was available before, during and after the storms struck. Many of the residents interviewed said they were well warned for the tornado, but not for the subsequent flooding.

According to the report, the National Weather Service’s Norman office sent out warnings about the flooding.

But several residents said television weather broadcasters chose to focus on the tornadoes rather than the flooding.

Many of them told the assessment team the flooding had taken them by surprise, and that they didn’t know how to respond to two different severe weather warnings at once, according to the report.

One resident told the team her first clue that flooding was on the way came when she noticed water coming into the underground storm cellar where she and several others had taken shelter from the tornado.

“We stayed in there until the water got too high,” the woman told the team. “We just hoped the tornado was over by that point.”

The report recommends the agency develop a way of warning residents when there are two or more kinds of severe weather on the way, such as tornadoes coupled with flooding. Those protocols should include wording on how people should prepare for and respond to multiple, simultaneous hazards.

The report also recommends the agency provide educational materials to broadcast media partners about how to manage weather alerts for multiple severe weather elements.

The report also highlights the challenge of reaching residents who don’t speak English. It notes that there are a large number of Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking residents in Oklahoma who may not be able to understand warnings.

Nine of the 23 deaths in the May 31 disaster came from Oklahoma’s growing Guatemalan community. Five of those killed were children, including a 17-day-old infant.

Emergency managers and broadcast meteorologists acknowledged a lack of warning resources for residents who don’t speak English, according to the report.

Rick Smith, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Norman, said the office is working more closely with a number of partners to get information to Oklahoma City’s Spanish-speaking population.

Smith said the office has a close relationship with KTUZ, an Oklahoma City affiliate of the Spanish-language network Telemundo. That station also is ramping up its weather coverage, which will give Spanish-speaking residents greater access to severe weather warnings, he said.

The Norman office also is working with Red Cross officials to distribute Spanish-language safety and preparedness information into residents’ hands, he said.

by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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