COVID-19: Community storm shelters to close

by Charles Gerian

As the weather starts to warm and the clouds begin to darken, Oklahomans know that the most potentially dangerous time of the year is arriving. With that comes an added air of uneasiness: What are community storm shelters to do with social distancing and the threat of the coronavirus?
Blackwell Severe Weather Operations Department Director Brian Muret provided some information on what Blackwell's storm spotters are doing to prepare for the upcoming tornado season.

“We have spoken to local authorities, county officials, and state officials, and we've decided that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, we will not be doing community shelters at Blackwell Middle School and Blackwell Elementary,” Muret said. “As a result, we're advising residents to be mindful of where to go in their own home in the event of a tornado.” 
“You want to avoid windows, doors, and outer walls,” Muret said, “and you want to find a basement if you have one, interior rooms, a stairwell, bathroom, or hallway on a lower floor. I've seen kids wearing baseball helmets and football helmets as added protection as well.”

“We currently have nine spotters: myself, Kevin Zimmerschied, Lonnie McCoulloch, Ken Taylor, Bill Merchant, Darrel Grossardt, Billie Phillips, Nelda Shipman, and Brett Shipman,” Muret said. “All of us are committed to keeping Blackwell and Kay County residents informed and safe during severe weather incidents”

When tornado-prone weather hits, Blackwell citizens know the sirens are soon to follow. There are currently 12 tornado sirens in Blackwell, and Muret said they go off the minute a tornado warning is issued for the area.

“They sound off initially for three minutes, and every 10 minutes as needed if there's still danger,” he said. “We will not be doing an all-clear siren.”

The sirens will be tested beginning this week, weather permitting. Nixle alerts will be issued before testing, and the sirens will not be tested on overcast or cloudy days, or when severe weather is forecast for the day.

“We just had the sirens maintained and serviced, so they're ready to run,” he said. “Like any machine, though, the more they're used, the quicker there are to be problems, so we'll only be testing intermittently before storm season.”

Muret added that the sirens are not meant to be heard inside, and they are not meant to be a household's only sign of tornadic weather.

“They are outdoor warning devices. Every year, we receive complaints that maybe some folks can't hear the sirens inside, and that's because you're not supposed to. We have two Facebook pages we update and go 'live' on during severe weather – Skywarn and StormSpotters – and we send out Nixle alerts as well to the community,” Muret said.

For the central-plains area, Muret said April through early June is “severe weather season.”

Blackwell residents have several ways to receive up-to-the-minute weather coverage, including the Nixle news alert service, which can be subscribed to by texting “74631” to 888-777. Blackwell locals who are socially connected via Facebook can also find the Blackwell Skywarn and Blackwell Storm Spotters pages from the City of Blackwell's SWOD. The department provides live updates, videos, and more during severe weather outbreaks. Blackwell's SWOD can also be found on Twitter, @Blackwell_SWOD.

AccuWeather forecasts a normal to slightly above-normal number of tornadoes in 2020 with a range of 1,350 to 1,450. That range is close to what occurred in 2019 and 5% to 15% more than the U.S. annual average.

There were 1,422 tornadoes in 2019. Between 1,253 and 1,297 tornadoes occur annually in the U.S., according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information and the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

Currently, Kay County ranks fifth in the state for tornado totals, as reported by the National Weather Service in Norman. From 1950 through 2018, there have been 96 tornadoes in Kay County, with Canadian, Osage, Oklahoma, and Caddo county rounding out the rest of the Top 5.