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When Tornadoes Are A Way Of Life


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Residents of Moore, Oklahoma, are coming to grips with one of the most devastating tornadoes in history. Dozens are dead, and that toll is expected to rise. We'll speak with a meteorologist about forecasting such a disaster when lives are at stake. Also, growing up in Tornado Alley.

While the extent of yesterday's damage was stunning, a tornado in May is no surprise in that area. There are familiar warning signs, rituals, perhaps siren fatigue. We'd like to hear from you. If you've lived in Tornado Alley, tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, should the U.S. lower its blood alcohol limit for drunk driving? But first to Oklahoma. Joining me now is Michael Cross, state capitol bureau chief at member station KOSU in Oklahoma City. Welcome.


LUDDEN: Michael, can you tell us the scene in Moore at this hour?

CROSS: Well, at this hour they're still trying to dig out from the devastating tornado that hit less than 24 hours ago. The biggest problem right now is we are now under a thunderstorm warning. We have hail, lightning coming in through the area, which is actually, after the many years that I've been living here, rare. Usually the day after a tornado is very sunny, it's very - sometimes it's almost too hot because it usually happens in late May and sometimes in June.

But today it's very rainy, which really hampers any efforts to get in there, especially with lightning, with hail, and of course all this debris is now getting wet, and that makes it even harder to dig through. So the rescue efforts are being hampered right now because of storms that are going through the area.

LUDDEN: I guess I should ask: Are you in a safe place?

CROSS: Yes, I'm actually at the state capitol, where we've actually had to do some cutting back on water and air conditioning because of a water treatment plant lost power. It has been restored, but in the meantime they're asking people to restrict water usage so that they can get the pressure back up.

LUDDEN: How - so despite these difficulties, the lightning and the rain, what is taking place in Moore? How are people figuring things out today? I mean, I heard someone say they have to actually post street signs so people can recognize where the streets are.

CROSS: It's very difficult. The governor took an aerial tour of the devastated area, which is approximately 17 to 20 miles long. So it's - in some of the hardest hit areas, there's nothing left of a house except for maybe some steps, and that's basically it. Everything else is just debris. And many areas have no street signs.

So we saw this mostly - I think most people remember Katrina, when they went by door to door to - and they put markings on each one of them, and that's what they're doing. They're just going door to door, and, of course, there's no doors anymore. They're just going to where there should be a house and looking through them.

The problem is when you take cover from a tornado, a lot of times you are going into a storm shelter, which is beneath the house, or a basement, which again is beneath the house, or a center closet. So when these tornadoes come through, everything piles up on top of that. So there are people who might be trapped underground, underneath all of this debris, underneath basically what was a house, sometimes a one- or two-story home is not sitting on these people's shelter.

So mostly rescue efforts are not only digging through the rubble but listening. They have to hear for the sounds of help. And so they're telling helicopters to stay away. They're telling news crews that have generators going for power, turn them off because sometimes that cry for help is so silent that you really have to listen carefully, and that's what rescue workers are doing right now.

LUDDEN: You know, Michael, this question came up: Do - does everyone have a basement or a storm cellar? Are there homes that don't have them?

CROSS: There are some that don't. A lot of them now - most of your new, new homes do, and especially this area was affected by the May 3, 1999, tornado, 14 years ago, and almost every home in the Moore area that has been built since 1999 has come with some kind of a storm shelter. Nowadays...

LUDDEN: This is the same area hit, some of the same neighborhoods?

CROSS: This is very much the same area. It's a little bit different, but for the most part it's the Moore area that was - had been - most of it had been rebuilt. Some people, they did interviews on the news of people who had rebuilt their homes since the May 3 tornado of 1999, and that was the home that got hit yesterday afternoon.

LUDDEN: All right, Michael Cross with member station KOSU in Oklahoma City. Let's get a caller on the line. Stephanie(ph) is on the line from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi Stephanie.

STEPHANIE: Hi there. I was calling because I've lived in Tulsa basically my whole life and watched the tornado that happened in 1999 with a little bit of apathy, I must confess, until after I saw the aftermath. We're kind of used to running out and standing on our roof, looking at the funnel clouds, not with a lot of fear. I can tell you last night, I started calling storm shelter companies, and I had one installed in my garage this morning.

LUDDEN: So apathetic no more.

STEPHANIE: No, I have two small children now, and I can just tell you that it's just changed my entire perspective. I'm going to start crying. I was just watching, and I can't imagine how scared those children were, and we just built our house in November. We kept saying we were going to install an above-ground storm shelter and kept finding other ways to spend that money. And last night I just decided my priorities have got to change, and there's just too much information showing me these storms are getting worse. I want to keep my family safe. So we got one installed first thing today. We were very lucky that we're even able to get our hands on one.

LUDDEN: Stephanie, thank you so much.

STEPHANIE: Thank you, and thanks for your coverage.

LUDDEN: Michael, Stephanie talked about, you know, growing up in the area but still feeling an apathy.

CROSS: Stephanie, I tell you, apathy is one of the biggest problems, especially when you have - we have some of the best meteorologists, so let me start there, but they do get very energetic when a storm happens. And sometimes when that storm isn't near you, you tend to make fun of them or drown it out, and you hear the sirens especially because a siren goes off - an example, the sirens went off yesterday afternoon for the tornado in Moore, but we were hearing them throughout Oklahoma County, which is a very large county.

So some of the areas that weren't even getting rain were getting these tornado warnings, and if you know it's not there, you just don't, you don't think about it. You ignore it. And I think May 3, 1999, did wake a lot of people up. That's why many houses now have these storm shelters. But the one that came through yesterday will also wake people up and make them realize how important it is to listen to the meteorologists, to listen to the stormchasers and especially to take cover when you hear the sirens.

LUDDEN: Did you, Michael, have, you know, rituals as a child, where your - did your - you're longstanding from the area? I mean, did your parents talk to you about this?

CROSS: Well yes, and one of our - when at my grandparents, we used to go hide in the closet, that's - we had a central area. When I have - the home I live in now, my wife and I will go into a closet, as well. But I also have to agree with Stephanie. Growing up, we also used to sit on the roof and watch these things come through.

There were people out in Moore who were watching this. The thing about a tornado, yes, it was two miles wide, or that's what they're expecting to say it was, but still there's areas where you can clearly see it. So you're standing out watching this, either on a roof or out just watching it, then watching the devastation as it goes by without any danger at all.

So we're used to - we're used to watching the tornadoes, not necessarily running for cover when they actually happen, but...

LUDDEN: Now that can't be what your parents told you to do. I mean, is it just after so many years and the warnings and not being hit, is that what happens, or I don't know, help us understand.

CROSS: No, yeah, it is very hard to explain, but, you know, we don't get as frightened of tornados as some people. I've known people who, especially from the East or West Coast, will come to Oklahoma and start going through panic attacks because there's a tornado like two, three, four counties away. And we're like no, everything's fine, don't worry about it.

And I'm sure it would be the same thing if I were to go out to California and felt my first earthquake. Of course we've had our share of earthquakes here, too, but it - tornadoes just don't really make us as frightened as some people think until you get this one, until you get the one like this one, the one we had in Woodward last year, the one in May 3, 1999, the tornadoes that came through Oklahoma City in 2003.

Eventually every year or so you get that wakeup call that goes oh, I need to take this seriously. And like Stephanie a lot of people go OK, I need to get that shelter installed, I need to have a plan and especially with the children. We've got one lawmaker who just came up with a plan for a bill to do a bond issue for storm shelters for schools after what happened to the elementary schools in Oklahoma in Moore.

LUDDEN: Let's get another quick call in. John(ph) is in Norman, Oklahoma. Hi there, John.

JOHN: Hi, I actually am currently in Oklahoma City, and what I had to do to get up here was go south of Norman and west to a different interstate to come up this direction, and I still had to cross the path of where the tornado came from. I moved here about in 2005, and it wasn't until I drove across a bridge, which was about where the tornado really had started to intensify, and I saw the sticks of where trees used to be. And that's when I realized that it - and it only got worse from there.

LUDDEN: So is this going to change your outlook going forward, John?

JOHN: I've always taken it very - I've always taken the shelter very seriously. I tend to have a radio on whenever it's, you know, one of those types of days. And I think the problem is, you know, we're getting - we're getting a siren - we had sirens going off the entire time that was in Moore because it was partly - you know, it was very close to the county that I live in.

Actually, I believe that Moore is the northern Cleveland County. And so you hear the sirens go off, and it's the same noise for hail as it would be for, you know, a deadly tornado. The only way you're going to know if it's a tornado emergency or just a severe weather warning is by listening to something else other than the sirens.

LUDDEN: All right, well John, thank you so much for the phone call.

JOHN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Michael Cross, any idea, briefly, at this point how long rescue efforts will continue?

CROSS: Rescue efforts could take a while, I think for the next couple days, especially when we've got - just know we do know that electric crews are coming in from Louisiana and Texas to help try and bring the power back on. I think that's going to help. But of course again, normally these - we don't have such bad weather the day after a tornado, and this is - the hardest thing right now is dealing with the thunderstorms that are going through the area, the rain, the hail, and of course the lightning.

You can't be out there digging through debris out in an area that is now open plains without being worried about being struck by lightning.

LUDDEN: All right, Michael Cross, member station KOSU, is going to stay with us a few more minutes. We'd like to hear from our listeners. Did you grow up in Tornado Alley, call us, 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden. On Monday, a tornado roared through Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, with winds up to 200 miles an hour. Buildings were flattened, and as many as 24 people are dead, many others missing and wounded.

NPR continues to cover this disaster. Michael Cross of member station KOSU is here with us today. And we'd like to hear from our listeners. Do you live in Tornado Alley? What do you do when you hear the tornado sirens? Our number is 800-989-8255, our email address talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We have an email from Dan in Oklahoma, who writes: There are hardly any basements in Oklahoma. When you dig more than a foot or two into the ground, there's a bunch of rocks. It's hard to affordably and easily have a basement.

And let's take another caller here, Emily is calling from Norman, Oklahoma. Welcome to the show, Emily.


LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

EMILY: Well, I'm a senior at Norman High School, I'm actually on my lunch break right now. I just wanted to testify to the support of Oklahomans. It's been really impressive, from the tornado, you know, last night to 8 A.M. today they were able to pull together a truck from alumni, an alumni network at Norman High School, and we're sending out a shipment, you know, at 1 o'clock today to Moore, and it's going to be more shipments throughout the day and tomorrow.

But I just thought it was wonderful how fast the response time was of the students and the alumni and just the support of Oklahomans for each other.

LUDDEN: Emily, it must be - have been frightening to watch. How are you handling, you know, the emotion that comes with such tragedy?

EMILY: I mean, it was really frightening because I'm supposed to pick up my little brother every day at 3 o'clock. So I was running to get him, and the tornado sirens went off as I was going into the school. And, I mean, I can't explain how - I mean, as much as everyone's talking about how they do go off all the time, so in a way I was really blase about, oh, well, I'll go out and get him right now even though I know inclement weather is here.

But at the same time, as soon as those go off, your heart still drops no matter how many times you've heard them. And as I was running in to get them, they were screaming, you know, no one can leave, everyone stay in the school. And that part is, you know, really scary. And then coming out and the relief that comes with knowing that it didn't hit you, but then at the same time the tragedy of thinking how close it was.

And, you know, it could have as easily been you as it was in Moore, and I mean, it passed right over us and just, you know, you're - I'm trying to, you know, deal with being joyous that it didn't hit us and at the same time feeling so, so terrible for what happened in Moore.

LUDDEN: Well Emily, thank you so very much for the call, and take care.

EMILY: Thank you, bye.

LUDDEN: Michael Cross, you were there in 1999, the last terrible tornado. So how is it - you know, how do people decide - is there talk of rebuilding, whether to rebuild? How does that move forward, and what are you hearing this time?

CROSS: I don't think there's really necessarily talk on whether to rebuild. I think because not only you have to think about Oklahoma City with Moore as, of course, one of the suburbs, and Midwest City, where in 1999 where it hit, where I was living at the time, and Oklahoma City was also the site of the 1995 bombing. There was never, ever talk of whether or not we should rebuild. It is always now what do we do to rebuild.

And Midwest City, Moore that got hit really hard by the May 3rd tornado in 1999, immediately took steps to rebuild. Now it did take a couple of months before everything got back to some semblance of normalcy, although there was still a very large hole that existed where the path of the tornado - you could see from Midwest City all the way to Moore where the tornado had gone through for several months, almost a year later.

And so that's going to be the problem right now. There's going to be this big path where the tornado has gone through. But talking to the city manager of Moore yesterday, him coming right out and saying we're a resilient people, and we will rebuild, and we will come back even stronger than we were before, it's amazing to see the changes that Moore has gone through since 1999, and now they'll just mark 2013 as a new, a new starting point to grow and become stronger than ever before.

The Moore School District is one of the largest growing school districts in the state of Oklahoma. Moore, the suburb of Moore, is one of the largest growing in Oklahoma. So it will rebuild, and it will be stronger.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get another caller on the line. Karen(ph) is in Oklahoma City. Welcome to the program, Karen.

KAREN: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

KAREN: I was just going to make a comment on how weather-aware - that's the catchphrase we use in Oklahoma - the university in Norman is. I work in the School of Musical Theater, and I was attending a rehearsal there I guess about eight weeks ago, and the sirens went off. And it turned out to be just a severe thunderstorm, but I mean we packed everything up, directors, students, orchestra, everyone down into the basement.

The university, every single building there has a shelter area where you can go, and the students really respect the sirens, I think, there. And it's just great that we have someplace to go, and everyone can feel safe no matter where you on campus.

LUDDEN: Karen, thank you so much.

KAREN: Thank you.

CROSS: Jennifer, I do want to say that one the things that Emily had talked about earlier was the giving spirit here in Oklahoma City. We have Kevin Durant, who is our star player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, donated this morning a million dollars to the Red Cross.

The Chesapeake and Devon Energies, who also are our two biggest companies in Oklahoma City, all told they have donated, themselves, $4.5 million to these rescue efforts. So people step forward. And then there's all these individual groups, where people will just tweet out by the way, we're taking donations, we're taking donations, so come on by, we're taking donations. People step forward and help in times of crisis. It's just the way Oklahomans work.

LUDDEN: So getting through it by getting to coming together.

CROSS: Exactly.

LUDDEN: Cynthia from Norman, Oklahoma, writes: We have a safe room but will often go outside to look at the sky or the den to check the TV. We have been fortunate, since they all go around us. We often ignore the sirens since they go off for the entire county, and we watch those go by us. We can't live our lives by fear. We've learned to just be aware of the weather.

My non-native Okie neighbors have spent more time in our safe room than we have, but my heart bled for Moore, she writes. Let's get another caller here. Danielle is in Woodward, Iowa. Hi, Danielle.

DANIELLE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. We had a tornado at an odd time of year, in November, and the signs were there, and we took steps to protect ourselves. And I teach outside frequently. Half of my college classes are spent outside, and I carry a portable weather radio with me. And I cannot say enough good things about the National Weather Service and how they have become wonderful partners for helping me with field trips and keeping us safe. It's tax money very well spent.

LUDDEN: All right, well thank you so much for that, Danielle. And let's see if we can get another one here, Mary in Claremore, Oklahoma. Mary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARY: Thank you for having me. Well, I just wanted to say I guess I'm one of those East Coast people who moved here to Oklahoma and I guess I am a little freaked out. But my husband and I always take precautions when there's severe weather, and I feel a lot of native Oklahomans as well do. It's such a serious situation, and I think our media does a great job here informing the community of the track of the storms and to give us more time to prepare.

But I think that - I mean we were ready. We do not have a safe room. We have an indoor, you know, a closet in the inside of our house. I wish we had a safe room. But nobody has basements, either. I'm sure there are a few, but very few people have basements in Oklahoma.

LUDDEN: All right, Mary, thank you so much for the phone call. And Michael Cross, someone - Patrick in Traverse City, Michigan, asks: Could you explain what an above-ground shelter is, please?

CROSS: Well, they're rare. Above-ground shelter would actually just exactly that. It's a shelter that is not dug into the ground. Those are rare. Most of the times the shelters are dug into - underground into like the garage. Now there is above-ground where you can have a shelter in what would sort of be if you think of a safe room for a house.

If you can't dig into the ground, then you have a safe room into the center of the house where you can go in, and it will not be picked up or, you know, thrown around like the other rooms in your house, or if it collapses on the safe room, the safe room can still protect you.

So that's basically what an above-ground - they usually don't happen. Usually it's below-ground because you don't spend that much time in your below-ground shelters. We remember the old '50s of the shelters where your nuclear war shelters, where you had to go in there, and you had to stockpile food and everything. That's not what these are.

They are very small because you're only in there for a short amount of time is the idea. Unfortunately for some of these people, you might be down there for a little while longer if, again, this house falls on you, and you're having to be trapped down there. And that's what's going on right now with the rescue efforts, is people are trying to find these people that might have a house sitting on top of their shelter.

LUDDEN: All right. We are joined now by Paul Douglas. He's a meteorologist and cofounder of WeatherNation TV, and he joins us by phone from Minneapolis. Welcome to the program.

PAUL DOUGLAS: Thank you, Jennifer. Good to be with you.

LUDDEN: Paul, I'd like you to listen with us here to a clip that a lot of people in Moore must have heard yesterday. This is Mike Morgan. He's the chief meteorologist for NBC's Oklahoma City affiliate KFOR. He was live on the air throughout this tornado, and here he is right after a tornado emergency was declared in Moore.


MIKE MORGAN: Tornado emergency for Moore. You folks in Moore, you need to grab whatever it is you need to grab, and you need to go underground. Bottom-line, grab your kids, grab your loved ones, grab your friends, or just get out of the way.

LUDDEN: So, Paul Douglas, what do you think when you hear that quite urgent appeal there from one of your fellow meteorologists?

DOUGLAS: Yeah. Mike is an old friend of mine, and he did the right thing. I mean, we're meteorologists. We're sort of trained to think clinically, look at the data, make a forecast, leave emotion out of it. And that works 99.9 percent of the time. But a day like yesterday, we're parents. We're human beings, too, believe it or not. And I think he saw the gravity of what was going on. And anytime you hear tornado emergency, that means confirmed, large tornado on the ground threatening an urban area, a heavily developed area.

I think one of the issues that we have in this country is a certain degree of tornado fatigue. Seventy percent of all tornado warnings, Jennifer, are false alarms, you know? Nobody wants to get caught with their Doppler down. So any time we see rotation in a thunderstorm, the temptation is to issue the warning. But in the process, we're all kind of bombarded with warnings. You start to tune out. And on a day like yesterday, you need to break through the clutter and the apathy and the cry-wolf syndrome and shape people viscerally and emotionally.

And the words that you chose - I think any sociologist will tell you the words you choose are critical in conveying that level of risk. At one point, Mike Morgan actually said: If you don't have an underground shelter, this tornado is unsurvivable. Get into your vehicle, try to drive away - which you never, ever hear. And yet, that was the magnitude of the tornado threat yesterday. The problem is with tornados, we don't know right away if it's an EF1 or an EF4.

LUDDEN: At what point - obviously, you weren't there. But, in general, at what point would you realize how big it is? How much time do you have to tell people?

DOUGLAS: You usually have maybe five to 15 minutes. The average lead time is 13 minutes from detection to the actual onset of the tornado in a given location. And that's up from about six minutes back in the 1970s. In the case yesterday, it was closer to 17 minutes, so it was better than average. But, you know, the problem becomes, all right, I've got the warning. Now what? And if it's a big one, if it's an EF3, EF4, EF5, unless you have an underground shelter or a safe room - concrete, steel-reinforced safe room - your odds of survival are very small.

LUDDEN: And EF is the shorthand for the system they have for grading the severity of these, right.

DOUGLAS: Right. The Enhanced Fujita scale, right. The winds yesterday with the tornado were probably 160 to 200 miles an hour, and I don't think anybody can imagine what that's like. It's like a lawnmower about a mile, a mile-and-a-half wide coming through your neighborhood. With hurricanes, the winds build gradually over many hours. In the case of Sandy, you know, in New York, we went from zero to about 70-mile-an-hour winds over the span of many hours. In the case of a tornado, in the span of less than 30 seconds, you go from zero to 200 miles an hour.

LUDDEN: Oh, my.

DOUGLAS: It's like a landfill. As one of my college professors at Penn State told me, it's not the tornado that's going to kill you. It's what in the tornado. It's basically an airborne landfill swirling around at, you know, 100 to 200 miles an hour.

LUDDEN: Let me remind people that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's get another caller on the line. Charlie is in Luther, Oklahoma. Hello, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

LUDDEN: Tell us - go right ahead.

CHARLIE: Yes. My comment was - is I'm a public defender from Lincoln County, which is about northwest of Moore, about an hour, an hour and a half. And I just wanted to say that yesterday, after the tornado hit, I had debris from Moore raining down on my land.

LUDDEN: An hour-and-a-half drive away.



CHARLIE: And I found shingles, a whirligig, and also an envelope with a Moore address on it.

LUDDEN: Oh, oh, Charlie.


CHARLIE: And I'd also - and I also just wanted to tell Mr. Cross that that I listen to him all the time on KOSU. I really appreciate his journalism.

CROSS: Thanks, Charlie.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much for the phone call.

Michael Cross, what are the next things to look out for? What will be happening in the next few days?

CROSS: Well, one of the things - Charlie had mentioned that debris have fallen in Lincoln County, and he's from Luther. But I - there has been talk about some of the debris landing as far as Tulsa, and even as far away as some neighboring states. I do remember in 1999, that there was really a callout for people to bring pictures that they had found, no matter where - how far they were. And there was even at that time, of course, just a burgeoning Internet, nothing compared to what we have nowadays, to where people were putting photos on the Internet and letting people see so they could go through them and find old family photos, because there is - there are now people that have not only - not just no homes, they don't have anything, nothing at all.

And so a lot of groups are going to be stepping forward to help provide homes for these people, to rebuild, and that's why FEMA is here. FEMA and Emergency Management will take care of a lot of the needs. But it's the personal items that will be lost forever that now we're going to start seeing the real power, I think, of social media and see the real power of bringing people together to get their items that they might have lost back to them, things that just can't be replaced.

LUDDEN: All right. Michael Cross is the state capitol bureau chief at member station KOSU in Oklahoma City. Thank you so much for updating us.

CROSS: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: And Paul Douglas, meteorologist and cofounder of WeatherNation TV, spoke to us - with us by phone from Minneapolis. Thank you, as well.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: The National Transportation Safety Board says a tougher drunk-driving threshold will reduce traffic deaths. Coming up, we'll have ESPN columnist LZ Granderson to explain why he thinks this is not a good idea. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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