Oklahoma has benefitted from its share of good publicly in recent years, including a stint in the NBA Finals and one of the strongest local economies during the recent recession.
For the past few weeks the state has returned to the national spotlight, this time with images of danger and destruction from a series of deadly tornadoes.
The national coverage has threatened to damage the state's improving reputation.
“Overall, it's certainly not helpful to growing our economy or to our outside view, but I don't think there's any long-term negative affect,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said. “We've established our own identity over the past few years. I don't think we're branded by tragedies like we once were. Our brand has improved such that the weather events don't overshadow the other events we've highlighted and promoted.”
Before the growth of the past decade, most people who had never been to Oklahoma thought of the state only in light of tornadoes, “The Grapes of Wrath” and the Oklahoma City bombing, Cornett said.
“Ten to 20 years ago, our brand didn't stand for much. It didn't have any positive things associated with it,” Cornett said. “Now with the (Thunder) basketball team and the general economic news that has come out, there are so many positive things to be associated with Oklahoma City. It's much easier for our brand to withstand this type of weather information.”
Part of the reason “The Grapes of Wrath” created such a strong, long-term, negative impression of Oklahoma is that the story was the only impression many Americans had of the state, said Don Hackler, deputy director for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
“The availably of media helps us today because people get to see the resolve of the people in Oklahoma, the way we respond to adversity and also the way fellow Oklahomans respond by providing material assistance, time and money to help their fellow Oklahomans,” Hackler said. “That's something that the nation and the world have really come to learn ever since the Murrah Bombing. That was one of the big messages that ended up resonating after the Murrah Bombing is the veracity and kindness of Oklahomans.”
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The Oklahoma City Chamber every few years conducts surveys of business leaders nationwide about their perceptions of Oklahoma City.
“Weather typically comes up,” said Cynthia Reid, communications director for the chamber. “We see the impact of weather ebb and flow from year to year. It was an increased concern in 2010 compared to 2007 because we had just had some storms. If we were to take that survey again now, we would see the same thing, but a year or two from now, we might not.”
The recent tornadoes may create a fearful image for some, but the national reports also could actually be beneficial, Reid said.
“There's not a doubt in my mind that this brings some of those negative stereotypes back, but the coverage also has shown what kind of place this is,” Reed said. “There's a positive impact of how we come together.”
While the storms have highlighted a negative affect of living in Oklahoma, they also have pointed out one of the state's greatest strengths, Hackler said.
“A lot of people would think companies would be put off by the weather, but we've gotten a lot of very favorable indications of support from companies that are considering Oklahoma,” he said. “They've advised us that the weather is not going to take us out of consideration. In fact, the way Oklahomans respond to adversity, many companies have said that's the type of people they want working for them.”
While Oklahoma has a long history with tornadoes, natural disasters can and do strike throughout the country.
“It's not like weather events only happen in Oklahoma,” Cornett said. “They happen in many places. It's not like any area is weatherproof. I don't know that businesses can go anywhere and think it's risk free.
“This is our first significant weather event that drew this level of attention in 10 years. I think we're more in line with other communities that have been hit. I don't think any long-term damage has been done.”
Bad weather may be less of a concern for larger national or international companies that are considering expanding to Oklahoma, Hackler said.
“Some really large companies we've been working with have said 'We're so big, wherever there's adverse weather, it's going to affect us. We can't run from it or hide from it,'” he said. “Companies are looking for a good opportunity for their company and their workforce to get the job done. The way Oklahoman's respond to adversity shows their character and makes them valuable employees.
Reid said business leaders in general tend to be less concerned about tornadoes and other weather-related threats.
“Business leaders have a tendency to understand that risk,” she said. “The greater impact we see is from potential employees asked to relocate here. They may not have that understanding.”
With individuals, the best answer is education, she said.
“I think the important thing is to dispel the myth and tell the real story,” Reid said. “We point out that we have the best weather prediction center in t\he world. Also, most of the time tornadoes are not these great big monsters. Most of the time they're smaller, and most of the time they stick to areas that are not heavily populated.”
While tornadoes can strike anywhere in Oklahoma, parts of Moore and south Oklahoma City seem to have experienced more than their share of big tornadoes over the past 14 years.
Still, Cornett said he does not expect businesses or residents to shy away from that part of town.
“Emotionally, we're still hurting. We're still feeling an impact,” he said. “Physically, for that small section of Oklahoma City and that larger section of Moore, you're taking about another year or longer to get the infrastructure back in place. But economically, I don't think we'll be hurt by these storms in the long run.”
The 1999 and 2003 tornadoes did not slow Moore's growth, economist Mark Snead said.
“The data tells us despite the first two tornadoes, Moore was the fastest growing Oklahoma suburb since 2009,” he said. “Those two episodes didn't slow it down. My guess is three won't slow it down either.”
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