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Tulsa County, Oklahoma

Overview


Since 1996, more than 30 of the U.S.’s most expensive weather disasters have hit Tulsa. Though Tulsa was not always the eye of the storm, the unusually high number of damaging weather events indicates that the county lies on an unrelenting and varied storm path.  Over 20 years, Tulsa has seen the likes of tornadoes, heatwaves, wildfires, hail and severe wind events, droughts, floods, and blizzards.

Often times, these storm types can intersect in disastrous ways going from one extreme to the next. For example, from July 2012 to May 2015 Tulsa experienced 24 months of exceptional (D4), extreme (D3), or severe (D2) drought. Once the dry spell officially broke in May 2015, the weather rebounded powerfully with widespread heavy rains, which caused major flooding throughout the remainder of the month. The May 2015 floods shut down highways, inundated farms, and closed down numerous businesses. Then in December, the rains continued, and resulted in nine flood incidents across Tulsa County. The heavy winter rains broke a daily rainfall record and caused Tulsa to have its second wettest December ever recorded—only a few months after the county was plagued by prolonged drought.

However, the most notorious flooding event in Tulsa occurred Memorial Day weekend 1984. A severe storm brought 24 hours of nonstop rain that averaged 9.35 inches, with some areas measuring up to 14 inches. Intense floods spread across the city, damaging thousands of homes and businesses, killing 14 people, and ultimately cost between $150-180 million. After the storm subsided, the public outrage grew, and resulted in a $140 million flood prevention project to ensure this flood severity never occurred again.

Tulsa, Okla. Severe Weather Timeline

In terms of tornadoes, Tulsa typically sees lower level classifications (EF0 and EF1), which can usually be managed without fatalities or much damage. Yet even these weaker tornadoes can cause significant destruction when they hit in a populated area. In March 2016 an EF2 tornado traveled across Tulsa for 10.5 miles and caused damage to over 300 homes, injured seven people, and hit multiple churches, businesses, and barns. On another occasion, an EF1 tornado just 80 yards wide touched down for only .4 miles—next to the Tulsa international airport. The small tornado and its strong winds damaged airplanes, cars, and an airport hotel in a matter of minutes. The strongest tornado to hit Tulsa, however, was an EF4 in 1993, which touched down in northeast Tulsa and traveled for 5.5 miles. The EF4 also was accompanied by an EF3 tornado and together they injured 130 people and caused $100 million in damage.

Heatwaves can also be a fatal and frequent occurrence in Tulsa. Beginning as early as May and peaking in frequency in August, heatwaves can cause hundreds of heat-related illnesses within just a few days. In June and July 1998, 452 people reported heat-related illnesses in Oklahoma. In Tulsa, at least five people died, including two 40-year-men and a 39-year-old woman. Another heatwave hit Tulsa in August 2007 while the city hosted the PGA Championship. Reportedly, 1,000 fans went to the first aid stand for heat-related illnesses, a fourth of which were deemed serious. In the city of Tulsa even more people were treated for heat illnesses and two elderly men died.

On the opposite side of the weather spectrum, severe snowstorms also have a devastating impact on Tulsa. During the Groundhog Day blizzard in February 2011, a half-inch of sleet fell in Tulsa before twelve to sixteen inches of snow quickly blew on top. Across Tulsa County there was near zero visibility as 35 mph winds whipped the snow in all directions and created large snowdrifts. Businesses, schools, highways, and the airport shut down, multiple schools and a casino had roofs collapse from the weight of the snow, boat docks and boats were damaged or destroyed on Grand Lake, and hundreds of traffic accidents occurred.

Tornadoes

How can city leaders convince the public that it’s a good idea to spend money on resilience before an emergency occurs? This is the multi-billion dollar question all Americans should be asking in the wake of the devastating 2017 hurricane season. It is also a question we heard in Tulsa from emergency managers who worry that the local public is growing complacent.

This question was more than academic when we arrived in Tulsa in August 2017, given that an unusual F2 tornado had caught the city off guard earlier the same day. Tornado season generally runs from March through June; the last tornado to hit the Tulsa area in August was in 1958. Most of the city was also asleep at 1:19 am when the tornado touched down, so few people would have been watching the news. In addition, tornadoes can form quickly, and in this case, emergency managers had little to no advance warning.

Over the course of our visit, we saw in local papers and television that many Tulsans were shocked—and even outraged—by the tornado and the lack of warning. In explaining the backlash, a number of the experts we spoke with pointed to local beliefs that a tornado could not actually hit the city and also that warning technology has improved to the point of near infallibility.

The first belief, we were told, was grounded in folklore, which took firm root over time as multiple tornadoes seemed to inexplicably bypass the city. Roger Jolliff, the emergency manager of Tulsa, explained: “Lore, attributed to Native Americans and the initial settling of the Tulsa community, says a tornado will not pass the Arkansas River. The tornado of ’99 made people believe it. Then we had so many times where tornados did not touch down on the city. One time we had a tornado warning for 45 minutes in Tulsa and two local TV stations followed the storm recording it, but still, it never touched down.” Jolliff noted that people also generally think tornadoes can’t hit cities with tall buildings.

Despite what looks like circumstantial evidence, there is no weight to these myths. Steven Piltz, the meteorologist in charge at the Tulsa National Weather Service, told us that he is certain a major tornado could hit Tulsa, and is concerned that these stories could leave the public unprepared. “Draw a straight line between Moore, Oklahoma [devastated by an F5 tornado in 2013] and Joplin, Missouri [another destructive F5 tornado in 2011],” Piltz pointed out. “What’s in the middle? Tulsa.”

Unfortunately, such myths can create a false sense of security, which then can lead to complacency. And as Jolliff warned us, complacency can be immensely detrimental to preparedness as individuals hedge their bets against the risks. “Safe rooms in the Moore area are in the thousands,” Jolliff observed. “We have hundreds.”

“Draw a straight line between Moore, Oklahoma and Joplin, Missouri. What’s in the middle? Tulsa.”

The second harmful narrative—that tornadoes can be predicted with perfect accuracy—can also stoke a false sense of security. There is no question that the technology and science behind weather prediction has improved drastically in recent years, but the hard truth is that there is still much scientists don’t know about complex storm systems. The weather can still be unpredictable.

This was exactly the case that day in August. From the very beginning of the storm, Jolliff kept his eye on the radar and remained in frequent contact with Tulsa’s network of emergency managers, national weather service experts, and meteorologists. Early in the evening, all information pointed to an extreme thunderstorm, not unusual for the area and time of year. When the winds escalated above 58 mph, Jolliff issued an extreme thunderstorm warning to Tulsa, and then began to wait and watch.

Unfortunately, the tornado developed out of the thunderstorm before anyone caught it on the radar. Once it touched the ground, the tornado ran fast, traveling three miles through Tulsa in six minutes before dissipating in the next county. The funnel did significant damage, including to a 20 story building, but fortunately there were no fatalities.

Steven Piltz, a longtime internationally recognized expert on tornado prediction, noted that the conditions that formed this particular tornado hurt his team’s ability to predict. “Yes, it will happen again,” Piltz warned. “We will miss the beginning minutes of some tornadoes. And we will miss some altogether.  That will happen, but it comes with the territory. Our standard is still that we want to be able to warn for every tornado, but the public needs to be aware that it doesn’t always happen.”

Why is the public’s demand for perfection so detrimental? For one, unrealistic expectation can degrade trust in experts even when they do everything in their power to predict accurately. And we saw across all the locations we visited that trust in institutions and experts is vital for major disasters, so that people will heed warnings to evacuate or seek shelter, for example.

Roger Jolliff stood by his decision that night to not sound the sirens in Tulsa, given that he only knew about the tornado after it had already touched down. “It’s a tough call, but it goes with the territory,” Jolliff explained. “As an emergency manager, you need to make that split second decision. It’s healthy, and it’s how we get better. You need to learn and grow from it.”

But even though he stood by his decision, Jolliff acknowledged the concerns of the public and answered questions about the night’s events at apress briefing. Jolliff told us that one Tulsan who called him earlier in the day to express her anger and resentment for the lack of warning called him back after seeing the briefing to tell him she now understood why he made his decision.

Steven Piltz also agreed that even though it appeared that Tulsans demanded perfection when it came to the sirens, they also accept the truth when experts are upfront with them. “Everyone seems to trust everyone else enough that they may...not like what you did, but [they] think you are telling...the truth.” Piltz added, “In that way, Tulsa stays under control.”