What we saw in Oklahoma City the evening of May 31st really bothered my wife Shawna and me. At her request, I'm publishing her essay about that night, to help process the experience, as well as make positive suggestions from it. Thanks, Shawna.. you have my full support. Here's the essay:
“It was a dark and stormy night…” This famous quote at the start of British author Lord Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford was used often by Charles Schultz in his “Peanuts” comic strip, as well as by novelists struggling with “writers block.” But it has never rung so true to me, as I struggle to begin this essay. Nearly a month after the deadly May 31st, 2013 tornadoes and flooding in central Oklahoma, I still feel a strong need to write about the near-catastrophe of media communication and public anxiety that day in Oklahoma City.
I was there that evening. My husband Jon is a severe weather researcher, and I do severe weather awareness outreach; we are also both storm chasers. Between us, we have over 40 years combined experience with severe weather events, and have seen a great variety of situations. However, even with all our knowledge, experience, and awareness as chasers, what we encountered on the roads that night in Oklahoma City was in a league all its own.
Observations from the “Highway of Hell”
At around 7 pm, after the massive El Reno tornado that killed 8 people, we were in southwest Oklahoma City attempting to retreat southward from the same storm complex. As winds from a new rain-wrapped storm circulation blew across on Hwy. 4 (the only route south from our location), we encountered bumper to bumper traffic stretching for miles, with hardly anyone moving! My first thought was that these were storm chaser “hoards”, but there were too many cars. My second thought was that perhaps a concert or some other venue had let out due to the weather. However, we soon noticed cars dangerously passing us on the right shoulder, then on the left by crossing the median, some even driving south in the NORTHBOUND lanes. I looked closely at the faces in the cars around us; it was soon quite obvious they were locals, and they were panicked. My third (and correct) thought was, “These people are fleeing town!” Click on the image or link below to watch video as we were stuck in this exposed-to-the-weather traffic:
Another rain-wrapped circulation (not tornadic, thankfully) passed near us as hundreds of cars crawled slowly southward on Hwy. 4. The next hour was quite hair-raising and very frustrating, with what seemed like thousands of people sitting on the open highway as tornado warnings were issued both left and right of us. Fortunately, no strong tornadoes came down upon the city at that time, or simply put, it would have been a massacre.
During the next morning’s drive back to Kansas City, I kept thinking about that frightening night. Texting and talking to friends, I heard that at least one local TV meteorologist had told people to flee if they did not have underground shelter. I was so angry - the death reports were starting to file in by then – that I posted this on my Facebook page:
Someone forwarded me a link of a portion of Mike Morgan’s KFOR broadcast from that evening, where I indeed heard him tell people to flee south ahead of the El Reno storm as it approached Oklahoma City. It’s true that a new but weaker tornado did damage near the airport and over southwest parts of the city just north of where we had been stalled in traffic. But after our experience in the traffic jam, I was truly stunned that he had told people to flee their homes in a large metropolitan area! However, my feelings quickly shifted in another direction when we soon learned of the deaths of 3 tornado researcher friends, which took precedence over other issues during the next two weeks.
Since then I’ve reviewed that clip several times and have read many articles and viewer comments regarding Mr. Morgan’s broadcast warnings. (To read some qoutes from Morgan's KFOR coverage, see this article here.) Much has been said about the actions that some citizens took, and there has been debate about responsibility for the deaths of one family that took cover with other residents of a nearby apartment complex in a large storm drainage culvert. (Read this NewsOK.com article here.)
Who is responsible?
The question of responsibility regarding these flooding deaths during the May 31st, 2013 event has puzzled me. On one hand, Mr. Morgan did a great job during the May 20th Moore tornado, and, apart from telling people to "flee", I feel he did a reasonable overall job on Friday evening May 31st. It is true that Morgan has covered many tornadoes over the years, and he is human like us all; he may have been somewhat tired and overwhelmed, particularly given the elevated local anxiety from the recent Moore event. And now another large tornadic storm was approaching Oklahoma City from the west.
On the other hand, I do feel strongly that he should not have told people how to take shelter at the last minute, particularly his suggestion that people without underground shelter get in their cars and "go south". Viewers know that on-air meteorologists are there to supply warning information during weather. But it is up to citizens themselves to be aware and know what specific actions to take in advance of potentially dangerous conditions - especially in high risk tornado and / or flooding areas. It is their responsibility to decide on the best shelter BEFORE severe weather strikes. The above article from NewsOK highlights this issue. There was debate in the family about whether they should seek shelter inside the apartment complex, or leave and head to the storm culvert at the last minute. As a severe weather preparedness and awareness advocate, I find this incredibly sad and frustrating.
Regarding weather, I have observed over the years that most citizens only want to know, “Will it rain at my wedding or picnic?” Or, “How hot or cold will it be so I know how to dress today?” When people do pay attention to severe weather events, they do so because: A) They have had ‘close calls’ in the past that frightened them enough to pay attention, or B) they are weather enthusiasts who have a natural interest. Most others have what sociologists call “optimism bias” or an “it-can’t-happen-to- me” attitude, so they do not pay attention until it is staring them in the face. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that people took Mr. Morgan’s word and did as he said… flee!
Do I think Mr. Morgan or KFOR is liable? I have no idea; I am not an attorney. However, (and with all due respect to the deceased), he never did say “go into a storm drain or culvert”. But, again, he should take responsibility for telling citizens to “flee”, and perhaps apologize, explaining the situation for the sake of public trust and future lessons that can be learned. Clearly, suggesting that people near or in a large city flee a tornado in their cars can result in massive traffic jams and a deadly recipe for disaster.
What can we learn from this deadly event?
· FOR THE PUBLIC: As many friends and colleagues in the weather community know, when it comes to educating the public about taking responsibility and learning basic tips to increase chances of surviving severe weather, especially tornadoes, we still have a long way to go. A famous quote says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”. Very true, but we must still continue to lead, for at least some people will drink. We also need to continue to push for the public to invest in safe rooms or underground shelters in tornado prone areas – such as the Oklahoma City and Moore – as well as investing in phone apps and weather radios to stay well informed. The same goes for state and local governments regarding public places such as schools, outdoor facilities and so on. Lastly, we also must also continue to preach about staying informed ahead of time, so that citizens are not caught on the road; DO NOT take cover under overpasses or in flood-prone areas. On May 31st, I saw cars packed in on both west and east lanes under an overpass, even parked all the way up close to the girders (I’m amazed some didn’t roll down embankments!).
· FOR THE MEDIA: On-air people must be very careful about their wording of warnings. It’s their responsibility to properly warn as fast and direct as possible to give people time in the path of tornadoes to find adequate shelter. But citizens must use their own common sense to decide what is “appropriate shelter” for each living circumstance – you can’t make that decision for them!
From available information, as of this date, 20 people perished (with one child still missing) on that evening from tornadoes or flooding, and two additional people died from flooding the next day. My hope in writing this essay is to emphasize that one casualty is too many, and we all must learn and spread the word from this event to prevent other tragedies. I hope that we continue to improve our already excellent severe weather watches and warnings, and that all involved with storm chasing and meteorology will seriously continue to teach and educate citizens concerning responsibility during severe weather events.
- Shawna Davies 6/25/13