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City Encourages Sheltering in Place During Storms

As Sunday night’s storm neared Norman, Okla., the Norman Police Department warned residents they’d need to take weather precautions, but that Norman has no public shelters. The storm dropped golf and tennis ball-sized hail on Norman.

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(TNS) - A number of logistical concerns mean the City of Norman, Okla., does not operate public storm shelters and instead encourages residents to shelter in place during severe weather, the city manager said Monday.

As Sunday night’s storm neared Norman, the Norman Police Department warned residents they’d need to take weather precautions, but that Norman has no public shelters. The storm dropped golf and tennis ball-sized hail on Norman, along with heavy rain and winds, during a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service.

City Manager Darrel Pyle said Monday that the lack of public shelters is a longstanding decision by the city that stems from a number of liability and logistical concerns.

“Those decisions were made many, many years ago with the recognition of issues like, where do you build them? How big are they? At what point do you tell people to go to the shelters?” Pyle said. “Imagine 125,000 people in Norman, all driving to a shelter with about 30 minutes’ notice, and then we wind up with a traffic jam and everybody’s stuck in traffic.”

City buildings like the library or city hall have storm-safe rooms away from exterior walls and windows, he said, but many don’t have a space built to be a storm shelter, and none have public storm shelters.

Pyle said the city has adopted a policy of encouraging people to shelter in place instead of leaving their home or workplace to find a public shelter. Many of Norman’s residents have some kind of non-city storm shelter available to serve them, he said.

Norman Public Schools, for example, has heavily invested bond money into making school sites storm safe, meaning students and employees have somewhere to go if severe weather strikes during school hours. The University of Oklahoma’s storm-safe structures take care of students and faculty, he noted.

“That’s all we can really hope for, is if the hospital has safe spaces for everybody in the hospital, schools have safe places for everybody in the schools and the university has safe places for everybody at the university, we think everybody else will be taking care of themselves either at their place of business or in their homes,” Pyle said.

For Norman’s unhoused population, the city warming shelter — open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly — the Salvation Army, Food and Shelter and city libraries (during daytime hours) can all provide safe spaces to ride out a storm, Pyle said.

Norman’s building permit system for home storm shelters has also been a successful storm safety measure, the city manager said.

When residents get a building permit to construct a shelter at their home, the shelter is registered with the fire department, Pyle said.

In the event of a major storm or disaster, the city has record of all registered shelters, and can check in to make sure no one is trapped in their shelter, he said.

“That system is pretty robust and we’ve been very successful with that program so far,” Pyle said.

The weather isn’t over — while the threat of hail seems mostly past, the city does expect more rain over the next few days. The National Weather Service predicts more severe storms Tuesday evening overnight into Wednesday; heavy rain could continue through Thursday.

Pyle said the city is “well prepared” to handle any localized flooding that may hit Norman’s streets this week.

“We’ve got lots of streams and lots of bridges that we’ll be watching closely, and when the National Weather Service gives us a forecast, like they’re giving us, we just keep everybody on standby and our emergency crews are ready to respond at a moment’s notice,” Pyle said.

Emma Keith is the editor of The Transcript, where she covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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