Apr. 2--The first flowers of spring are in full bloom, and that means tornado season is right around the corner.
The upcoming storm season is rolling in while the ground is still saturated from last year's historic rainfall, and many parts of the state are on lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rogers County Emergency Management Director Scotty Stokes offered recommendations for how families can get prepared, stay informed, take shelter and stay safe as tornadoes roll through.
For those who have a storm shelter at homes, Stokes suggested they stock it with water, an old pair of shoes, a couple of jackets and blankets, an empty 5-gallon bucket and a weather radio.
"Make sure you've got your cellphone with you so you can call if need be," Stokes said.
"With the saturated soil that we have right now, the rivers and creeks are already full, the lake is already full, they are releasing water from Oologah Lake to try to maintain some water storage area," Stokes said. "I've been in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers, and they are trying to maintain the water level to have enough room to expand or shut the gates if need be if it is flooding too bad downstream."
"If we get half the rain we did last year, we're going to be in trouble as far as flooding," Stokes said. "People need to really learn to start paying attention to that and watching those warning signs."
Methods for staying alert about potentially unsafe weather conditions include tornado sirens, mobile alerts from emergency alert systems and news stations, and weather radios.
Individual towns and fire districts own, maintain and operate all the tornado sirens in Rogers County.
Stokes cautioned that tornado sirens can have failed to sound in an emergency even when regularly tested and maintained.
"Tornado sirens are an outdoor warning device only," Stokes said. "When the tornado siren sounds, it is telling you to go inside, seek shelter, turn on your tv or weather radio, and start paying attention to what is going on around you so you can take the proper precautions."
Rogers County offers a free emergency alert system that gives residents information regarding any emergency situation near their home address. Residents can sign up for mobile alerts at rogerscounty.org on the Emergency Management Department page.
Several news stations also offer weather alerts through their mobile applications.
Those who live in flood plains along the Verdigris River can check out daily reports of the water level at the Oologah Lake Dam on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.
If you do not have a personal or public storm shelter near your home, professionals recommend you move to the innermost room in your home, one without windows, and surround yourself with pillows and blankets as protection from debris.
If you do have a private storm shelter at your home, Stokes requested that you register your shelter with the Rogers County Assessor's Office.
"It does not add to the tax value of the property, but the Assessor's Office maintains a mapping system for the county," Stokes said. "If we have a tornado go through an area, we can send people out by grid and say, 'there are these storm shelters in these locations, go check on them and make sure they got out okay.'"
The only public tornado shelters in the county are in the Oologah-Talala public school district, and they are only available to the public when school is not in session.
During any weather event, Oologah-Talala EMS, police and fire have keys to open the shelters to the public.
OTEMS Director of Operations Kelly Deal said that for the time being, in case of a weather related emergency, both shelters will be open to the public with precautions in place to limit community spread of the COVID-19 virus.
In an effort to limit the spread of disease, OTEMS has implemented a set of guidelines for those seeking shelter, and is attempting to communicate those guidelines with as many in the community as possible.
The first recommendation, Deal said, "Familiarize yourself with the shelters. There are two. One on 169 and one on the west side of the school campus."
Families should institute an emergency plan that includes leaving early enough to visit both shelters and stay at the shelter that is least crowded in order to practice social distancing, Deal said.
OTEMS has also placed CDC reminders in both shelters with information about COVID-19 and guides for how to create a family emergency plan.
"Our biggest fear was, if we closed the shelters out of fear of gatherings larger than 10, how do we get that message out to everybody?" Deal said. "Our biggest fear is that somebody shows up thinking they are going to get safety, and the doors are locked."
"We don't want to be in a situation where someone went for help where they knew they would be able to get it, and it wasn't there," Deal said.
Deal and Stokes both emphasized that in any major event, the first decision is always immediate life safety.
"Even with COVID-19 looming over our heads, if a tornado is coming, that is your most immediate threat, so you have to take shelter," Stokes said. "Worry about COVID-19 later."
In the meantime, Stokes said, "Maintain social distancing and wash your hands."
"I'm going to say what every health care provider in the world is saying right now: Please, please, please stay home," Deal said. "Make sure if you are out, it is for a good, solid reason. If we don't do this now we'll have to do it all over again. If we have to do this all over again, we may not have the health care system to deal with it. Now is our best chance to make a big difference."
Deal also issued a reminder to the public that 911 is for life-threatening emergencies only. Those seeking information about COVID-19 can dial 211, and those with only mild symptoms should stay at home and call their primary care physician.
(c)2020 the Claremore Daily Progress (Claremore, Okla.)
Visit the Claremore Daily Progress (Claremore, Okla.) at claremoreprogress.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.