How Oklahoma Deals with America's Most Extreme Weather

Because of its geographic location, there's little that policymakers can do to prevent the severe natural disasters that hit Oklahoma year after year. The best they can do is prepare for them -- but not everyone agrees how.
by | June 1, 2013 AT 1:00 PM
The wreckage of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children were killed when a tornado hit Moore, Okla., May 23. A petition has since been signed by more than 17,000 people to require storm shelters in schools in the state. (Photo: AP/Brennan Linsley)

A series of deadly tornadoes has devastated Oklahoma in the last two weeks, killing dozens and leaving billions of dollars in damage in their wake. The disasters have captured the national attention, but they are an unfortunate fact of life for this Great Plains state. In recent years, Oklahoma has dealt with what is arguably the most extreme weather in the United States, from record winters to vicious summers, and it is putting a strain on policymakers.

Here’s the eye-catching figure: Since 2000, 37 presidential emergency declarations have been issued in response to the state’s extreme weather events, eight more than the next closest state. Weather watchers point particularly to 2011 as a microcosm of what Oklahoma confronts weather-wise. A winter storm left an inch of ice on many of the state’s power lines, causing hundreds of thousands to lose power. In May, a record 93 tornadoes tore through the countryside. One June day, areas of the state endured a foot or more of rain. Then later in the summer, an extreme drought set in.

That’s just one year.

“You could adequately say there's nothing normal about our weather,” says Renee McPherson, the state’s climatologist. Shortly after she says this, another tornado watch beeps in the background of our interview, a first warning of the storm that would leave nine dead last Friday.

Unfortunately, there isn’t necessary much that the state or its local governments can do about it. Oklahoma’s extreme weather is mostly a byproduct of its geographic location. Moisture flows into the state’s atmosphere from the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Drier air drifts into its borders from the Rocky Mountains and the Mexican plateau to the west, then heats up during the spring and summer. But the state is also far enough north that it still catches most of the west-to-east storms that cross the Great Plains, and you can add in the occasional blast of cold polar air from Canada.

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Mix it up all up and you have a climate that annually fluctuates from harsh, wet winters to stormy springs to extremely dry late summers. “All of these different features have their big bull’s-eye on Oklahoma,” McPherson says.

They also cause a lot of headaches for state and local governments. For starters, their emergency management departments must be capable of routinely responding to disasters that injure hundreds of people and cause millions upon millions of dollars in damage. The tornado that struck Moore, Okla., in mid-May, for example, injured more than 375 people and state officials say the damage could reach $5 billion.

But that’s all after the fact. The real debate for many policymakers is what can be done to prepare for these storms ahead of time. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis has already said he plans to mandate that every structure in the city of 56,000 be equipped with a storm shelter and urged the state legislature to take that requirement statewide. A petition has been signed by more than 17,000 people, calling on Gov. Mary Fallin and lawmakers to approve legislation to require storm shelters in schools.

A mandate for schools might gain momentum after Moore, says State Rep. Jeanie McDaniel, an outspoken advocate for the state confronting its extreme weather challenges and climate change, but a broader requirement for all buildings isn’t likely to pass. In fact, when asked about any legislation passed in recent years in response to Oklahoma’s extreme weather outbreaks, McDaniel couldn’t name one. It’s an extension of the state’s conservative citizenry, she says, which doesn’t want the government to intrude on its individuality.

“I live in a state where people often feel government is not responsible for everything. We haven’t passed anything of the magnitude of the natural disasters that we've seen,” she says. “The country will watch how we deal with this. I have to think that we'll be a little smarter this time around, though I also hope it's not knee-jerk reactions.”

Localities are also limited in what they can do, but they’re trying. At a conference held by the National League of Cities (NLC) earlier this year, Broken Arrow Mayor Craig Thurmond described his city of 100,000’s efforts to better prepare for events like they’ve seen in the last month. They have trained city staff monitoring meteorological data at the University of Oklahoma's National Weather Center to look out for trouble. They’ve installed generators at key city facilities, such as sewer lift stations and fire stations. The city has set up an automated call system that’s capable of notifying almost every business and resident if an emergency is imminent. Those precautions have better equipped Broken Arrow to handle tragedies like the state has seen in the last month, Thurmond said.

But both Thurmond and McDaniel commented on an underlying problem in getting much done related to extreme weather: not only are Oklahomans strongly individualistic, they haven’t made up their minds about climate change. That could be in part because the state’s economy is staked largely in oil production; Oklahoma produces the fifth-most crude oil of any state in the country. An August 2012 poll found only 8 percent of the state’s residents thought human activity was primarily responsible for the changing climate, though two-thirds conceded that it could possibly be partly responsible.

"I think we have to acknowledge that climate change is coming, and that's why we're having such extremes,” Thurmond said at the NLC conference.

There is some evidence that Oklahoma’s extreme weather is changing its citizens’ minds about climate change. More than 30 percent of residents said in the same poll that the record-breaking heat that the state had been experiencing had altered their view about the issue, though more than 50 percent said it had not.

McDaniel takes those numbers as a sign that her constituents are coming to understand that something must be done about what she believes are the fundamental causes of the extreme weather seen in Oklahoma this May—dependence on fossil fuels, energy overuse and the like—rather than just finding ways to clean up in its wake.

“Things have come slowly to us,” she says, “but I think we are going to have to embrace change and the fact that the carbon footprint we've created has created a world that's very frightening sometimes.”