Thoughts on the Norman Tornado of 12 June 2009

One of the greatest ironies of my life happened on the night of 12 June 2009 while I was on vacation, within a few hours after I observed a non-tornadic supercell in Colorado.

My house in Norman was in a tornado. Not just near one, not just within sight of one, but smack-dab inside one.

Shortly after the day’s Colorado storm observing ended and we arrived at Elke’s mom’s place near Denver, my son called to tell me a supercell had blown up over Norman and a tornado warning was out. Earlier that day, while doing photography at Bent’s Fort CO, I specifically suspected something like this could happen, given the location of the stalled outflow boundary, the supercell-favorable bulk shear, and the massive CAPE along and S of said boundary. Indeed, while approaching the Fort before noon MDT, I even half-joked to Elke that a big honker storm could go over Norman and her flower beds could get pounded by grapefruit hail that evening. Ask her.

OK, so her gardens were just inside the edge of a nighttime tornado instead, and the hail was a few miles farther E and not quite that huge. If all my “forecasts” were that close, I could make millions as a fortune teller/prophet instead of being a meteorologist at an unnamed national center, and then, make a nice living charging you all premium coin for the near-perfect daily chase forecasts. If only…

Fortunately the tornado was a bird fart as these things go: a narrow, two mile long path with marginal EF-1 in another neighborhood and EF-0 in mine, mainly minor roof damage to a few homes. My house came away intact, with not even a shingle lost, though trees snapped on all sides in the north (weaker) side of the vortex). The supercell erupted over Norman, spawned the small tornado, and soon died. In the grand scheme of things, it was but one of nearly a thousand weak tornadoes each year in the United States. The 1/2-to-1 mile wide 3 May 1999 Bridge Creek/Moore F5 tornado probably processed more air mass in a second or two than the 2009 Norman tornado did in its entire lifespan.

Rich Thompson and others graciously swung by by night and by day to survey the damage on my property, and he also checked with the house-sitter. Rich also sawed up and cleaned up a lot of fallen and hanging tree debris while I was gone, for which I’m grateful.

A tornado path goes across my property in Norman, in mid-June, while I’m chasing in Colorado. Radical, dude. I told RT that I should just quit chasing, go to my back porch, sit for a spell with some fresh lemonade, and watch the hoses go overhead.

After a busy night of phone calls and little sleep, I determined that the property was secure, the occupant safe, the gawkers kept at bay. In the true spirit of the storm hunter, the chase trip went on. More on that in another post later…

While Elke and I continued to roam those blue highways and big horizons in search of atmospheric violence (fulfilled resoundingly on 17 June near Aurora NEb), quite a bit of controversy erupted within the Norman meteorological community about the fact that the sirens failed to sound until after the tornado hit the neighborhoods.

As someone whose home was in the tornado vortex, I followed the discussions and revelations from afar, but with great interest, in effort to get well informed as to what happened, what succeeded, what failed, when and why. Now that I’ve heard from folks on every node of the Integrated Warning System, here’s my take:

* Norman WFO looks to have done a good job with warnings and TV media seemed to be mostly on the ball. Nonetheless…

* If any link in the chain breaks, the whole system fails. Whatever the reasons or excuses, who ever did good or bad or right or wrong along the path from outlooks through watches/warnings/media/spotters/EM/individuals…what matters are results! Results, results, results. That’s all. The bottom line here was a failure of the Integrated Warning System. Simple as that.

* Disasters, or scary non-disasters (this was the latter) perform a needed service in revealing fixable flaws. Documenting and openly discussing these flaws isn’t blame, it’s necessary information. Points of failure must be revealed and repaired.

* Every property owner (me included) and home/vehicle occupant who was along the path, was very fortunate this was a weak tornado, for various reasons.

* For accountability’s sake, any given person who would have to answer for their decisions anywhere along the chain, also is lucky that this was a weak tornado. Will they use their good fortune as motivation to improve, or sweep it under the rug and place head firmly back in sand?

* Ultimately, tornado safety is personal responsibility of the individual. Some of the people in the path at the time were storm-ignorant. They therefore were irresponsible by being passively unaware, sirens or not.

* Norman and OU clearly are not “Storm Ready” — and I mean in the practical, not official sense. Just like we in Norman have these silly “Bike Route” signs recently slapped up alongside miles of narrow, hilly, shoulderless, dangerous rural roads, “Storm Ready” signs also serve no actual purpose. They’re mere decorations, ego-stroking exercises that are, by themselves, practically meaningless. The real test is in results, results, results. Never should the sirens sound so long after the tornado starts, whatever the prior forecast or lack thereof. Never should occupants of OU buildings under a tornado warning mill about them confused, uninformed of the threat and unaware of what to do. Can anyone argue that such a situation is just fine, as is? No way. So how can it be claimed Norman and OU are, quite literally, storm-ready? It can’t! Therefore, the official designations and pretty new signs are just fictional BS. It makes me wonder: What does “Storm Ready” mean, if events prove the designee is not really storm-ready? How many other “Storm Ready” communities and universities nationwide are in the same boat and don’t know it?

* Sirens are not meant for indoor warning; and over-dependence on them is a combined educational and personal responsibility problem.

* I agree with friend’s and colleagues’ suggestions to rewrite the local plan using city officials and NWC meteorologists, including ideas such as sectorized sirens, backup/remote activation (presently it can be done only by someone present with a key), city spotters. Norman and OU should set the national example. This is, after all, the world capital of severe storms meteorology. Anything less than setting the highest bar of tornado preparedness would be a damn shame.

* This was one singular, weak tornado: just one among over a thousand reported nationally in most years…nothing more, nothing less. It just happened to cause damage on a couple of properties owned by meteorologists in a town chock full of weather people. Let’s not make more out of it than it was, but let’s do use it to make smart improvements to those links that did break.

* Throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them. KC Public Schools got a massive windfall in the form of a judicially mandated 1% city income tax and later assumed some of the worst rankings in the US by many measures. The Titanic was very expensive, and look what happened to it. DOD once spent hundreds of dollars each for assorted hand tools no better than what I can get at Ace for $15 apiece. That’s not a political statement; it’s established reality rooted in factual events! Instead…

* Smart use or reallocation of whatever is available, of whatever the citizenry is willing to support, performed by experts in civic economics, city planning and meteorological preparedness working together, can improve the situation. Good stuff can come of this. If not here, where?

Finally, some strange trivia… How many professional meteorologists have had a tornado and the eyewall of a hurricane pass directly over places of residence? The list must be extremely short, and it may be just me. Either way, I feel honored!



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