The date May 20, 2013, will be stuck in the minds of Moore, Oklahoma, residents forever. It started off as a sunny and humid day, typical of the weather this time of year in Oklahoma and transformed into a deadly situation when a powerful tornado swept through the city leaving a path of destruction. Homes and buildings were destroyed, tractor-trailers were flung around like toys and the city faced one of the worst tornadoes in its history.
The EF5 tornado, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, ripped through the Oklahoma City suburb, with winds topping 210 mph, claiming 24 lives and causing an estimated $2 billion in property damage.
Moore has dealt with its share of tornadoes in the past, and longtime residents are no strangers to the damage they can leave behind. Several major tornadoes have hit the area within the last two decades, including an EF5 tornado in 1999, which currently holds the record for the highest winds ever recorded near the Earth's surface, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
Becky Elliot, an AccuWeather meteorologist who closely monitored the 2013 tornado during its peak, described the damage as "widespread and the worst she'd ever witnessed since becoming a meteorologist."
Dealing with an event of this magnitude can be a feat of its own, and with the two-year anniversary of the 2013 tornado looming, the City of Moore has made adjustments to ensure that residents are safe from powerful tornadoes.
Gayland Kitch, director of Emergency Management of the City of Moore, said, "Learning from past severe weather events is the key to making sure less casualties occur in the future."
"This is our fourth large tornado that we have dealt with and modifying procedures based upon these events will make our citizens safer," Kitch added. "In addition to powerful tornadoes, Moore also experiences smaller ones, and we have used these situations as a way to practice emergency management protocol for when a large-scale event occurs."
Citizens living in Moore have taken matters into their own hands to protect their families during a tornado event such as the one in 2013. Kitch stated that the number of safe rooms has increased since the 2013 tornado, and the number is expected to continue to rise into the heart of severe weather season.
Safe rooms, which serve as storm shelters, can vary in size and are designed to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria to provide full protection in an extreme weather event such as a tornado. These rooms are made out of solid concrete and can withstand wind speeds of an EF5 tornado and can hold up to 30 people.
"Because many of the houses in Moore don't have basements, these shelters allow families to be safe without traveling far from their homes," Kitch said. "More than 40 percent of homes in the city are now equipped with safe rooms and we hope to see more."
The City of Moore has installed 37 sirens throughout the city, with its primary focus to provide citizens with warnings when a tornado is in the general vicinity. The sirens, which are placed outdoors, are sounded at three-minute intervals and are sounded 15 minutes prior to tornado conditions entering the city. When a siren is sounded, people who are outdoors should seek shelter immediately.
Siren may also be activated to include other hazardous weather events such as flash floods, lightning, straight-line winds and hail. The activation of the sirens is based on information from the NWS, location of the hazard or threat and the timing of the hazard or threat. Kitch reiterated how important it is to maintain a close relationship with agencies such as FEMA and the NWS to ensure that citizens receive weather alerts in a timely manner.
"We always urge people to avoid driving in severe situations like tornadoes, but this may become difficult during rush hour," Kitch said. "Because of the large area that these sirens cover throughout Moore, it has become an effective way to help people who are outdoors to be aware of a storm that is approaching and to decide what protective measures they need to take to protect themselves."
Prior to the tornado touching down, the NWS in Norman issued a tornado warning 16 minutes before it actually formed which is 3 minutes more than the average warning of 13 minutes.
Elliot stated that an increase in technology has improved overall time which gives people options to reach safety as quickly as possible.
"It is important that officials notify people 15-20 minutes before that a potential tornado might be touching down," Elliot explained. "If you issue tornado warnings 30 minutes to an hour before a storm is in the general vicinity, then you run the risk that people are going to leave shelters earlier than expected and lives will be threatened when people start to head outside before the storm has passed."
The City of Moore has also offered programs to its residents to educate people on topics such as safety tips, knowing the difference between a tornado watch and warning and procedures to take if you are caught in a flash flood. On May 8, the City of Moore was threatened with flash flooding as severe storms affected central Oklahoma with high winds, heavy rain and hail. Situations like this prompted the city to create public outreach events to increase awareness of the dangers of flash flooding.
"Although they [residents of Moore] are aware of the differences between tornado watches and warnings and the dangers of being outside, we still try to hold forums such as this to ensure that people are educated not only on tornadoes but also all the risks that come along with severe weather systems such as flash flooding. We have had several public outreach events such as this and in fact we also have two coming up this week," Kitch said.
With the help of both government and non-government agencies, Moore has been fully restored to what it was prior to the 2013 tornado. These agencies have also taken pressure off local governments and have chipped in financially to ensure that communities like Moore and others across central Oklahoma receive the aid that they need.
"[FEMA] does an excellent job responding and stepping in when we need help after dealing with events such as the one we had two years ago. In addition to that, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army did an amazing job in providing basic necessities and will continue to do so in the future."