Severe Weather: Why, How and Wow!

Ready or not, spring in the metro means serious weather is probably on the way, so it’s better to be prepared. In a quick primer for everything from the science of the skies to what to do with a hail-damaged car, Slice delves into Oklahoma’s meteorological mayhem.


Local Or Not, Everybody Knows That Oklahoma’s Nickname Is The Sooner State.

Those well-versed in state statistics and specialties also know that the state’s motto is Labor omnia vincit, which is Latin for “Labor conquers all things.” I would have lobbied for another motto … something along the lines of “weather conquers all conversation,” (Latin translation unknown) because here – and now – more than ever, weather is the talk of the town.

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There’s no shame in that, according to KOCO 5 Chief Meteorologist Damon Lane. “News is what we do while waiting for weather to happen,” he explains while giving me a tour of the television studio. To illustrate, “Here’s the news desk,” Lane says gesturing to a tidy, two-seat workstation positioned in front of the familiar cityscape backdrop. And what about the dozen-odd monitors nearby, actively flickering with information, updates and data? “This is the weather center.”

While sunny skies around the metro are seen more often than not, Oklahoma City is also the scene of more of what Lane calls “low-frequency, high-impact” weather events than any other heavily populated place on earth. Hail, high winds, ice storms and of course, tornadoes, are seemingly always just around the corner.

(clockwise from top) Low-topped severe thunderstorm near Newkirk // Clouds gathering near Weatherford // Early evening light illuminates shelf cloud // Photos courtesy Chris Sanner and Brandon Goforth,

Why is this constant cloud of inclement weather always lurking? In a word – water. “We’re situated perfectly where two large bodies of water, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, provide atmospheric moisture,” explains Lane. In particular, Gulf moisture – and how the atmosphere transports it – is the key component in determining the type and intensity of local storms. Got it. So we’ll mind the humidity and we’ll know what’s heading our way?

Wrong, says Lane. As a measurement that’s dependent upon another factor – air temperature, in this case – humidity is not a reliable indicator of the amount of moisture in the air. “That’s why it’s called ‘relative humidity’,” Lane elaborates. “It fluctuates depending upon the temperature.” In short, humidity doesn’t really tell the whole story. Start again.

“When we’re talking about moisture,” Lane says, “we’re really talking about dew point.” Now we’re getting somewhere! Dew point is an absolute measure of water in the atmosphere, as expressed in degrees. Lower dew point numbers in the 20s and 30s mean there is little moisture in the atmosphere. Think of those dry, cold winter days that make your skin feel like it’s stretched tight.

Amazing radar imagery of a tornado  //  Radar courtesy Damon lane, KOCODew point readings in the 50s, 60s or higher mean there is a considerably higher amount of moisture in the air. And that’s when things get interesting. In the fall and winter months, high dew points and low temperatures bring thick fog, dense dew, heavy frost and even the occasional ice storm.

Normally the warmth of the daytime hours dispenses with these inconveniences, making the evening commute much less stressful. If cold air temperatures persist, the ice may linger on the pavement for a while. If the breeze picks up, that’s when the tree branches and power lines come down. Fortunately winter is the calm season in terms of wind in the metro.

The real weather news happens in the primary storm season spanning from March through June. High dew points and a low-slung jet stream coming from the west mean trouble. This is when the city gets pelted with anything from torrential rains to heavy hail to damaging winds. Mix in a sharp change in temperature when warm and cold
fronts collide, and that’s when the tornadoes tend to develop.

So when it comes to wicked weather, the question is not “if” but really “when.” What can we do? Just grin and bear it? Perhaps, but Lane urges the masses to be proactive.

“Keep some contact with weather information,” he says. “If a storm is coming, we will be on TV talking about it.”

What happens if we’re out hiking in the woods, blissfully yet perilously ignorant of all media messaging? “Trust your gut,” says Lane. “If you have any doubt about whether or not you’re safe, abandon whatever you’re doing.” Lane also advises us to check the weather before heading out for the day. Potentially dangerous storm systems are tracked days in advance, and instant updates are always available via text, tweet or TV.

It’s sound advice. But even if we’ve done our homework and we’re ready for anything, nothing is going to stop a storm from coming. What do we do now? “Have a plan in place before a storm develops,” Lane cautions. “Most spring and summer storms hit between 2 and 5 in the afternoon.” If a major storm is imminent, Lane suggests taking action several hours ahead of time.

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Now we’ve scrapped the camping trip, stocked up on pantry staples and decided to play it safe by hunkering down in the house. But where? Although they are the best place to take shelter, basements are few and far between in metro housing stock. Short of a basement or storm shelter, “A small space in the center of the house that is fortified by surrounding walls is known to be the go-to place,” says Jeff Click, owner of Jeff Click Homes and President of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association.

Supercell over a Lexington farm // Photo courtesy Chris Sanner and Brandon Goforth,

Pick that space wisely, though, cautions Click. “The garage is where the structural integrity of a home fails first in a significant storm,” he warns. “A space just inside the house adjacent to the garage may not prove to be the safest.” This is because the garage door is not rated with the same shear-resistance as typical framed and bricked walls. If a garage door caves in, it allows for wind intrusion on a large scale and can compromise the roof and walls of the garage.

However, as for locating a tornado shelter within the garage’s footprint, it still makes a lot of sense. “Consider a typical house,” Click says.  “Where else can you afford floor space for an awkward opening into the ground? How would finish flooring (carpet, tile, wood) transition around it, assuming the lid is safe to walk on/across? Proper ventilation also is a factor, and that means there is some sort of hole in the floor. The garage seems like an opportune space for such an opening, since it’s less ‘valuable’ functional floor space. Also, if properly placed where the entry/exit point of the shelter is exposed beyond the bumper of a car, the car can also serve as protection for the lid of the shelter should the structure above it fail and fall downward. If an in-ground shelter was located in an interior closet, all of that lumber and material would likely be on top of the lid without the protection that a heavy vehicle would have provided had it been in the garage.”

The typical tornado shelter leaves much to be desired in terms of spaciousness but is certainly functional in its utility. For an extra measure of confidence as well as the flexibility to use the space as another living area, what about incorporating a full basement to an existing structure? “You can’t go under the existing slab,” says Mike Hancock, PE, President of Basement Contractors, Inc., “but you can add basement space.” The most popular way to do this is to add a room onto your house and incorporate new basement space underneath. “It’s kind of an investment for the homeowner then,” explains Hancock. Under this scenario, the additional square footage at ground level pays off in the end.

Lightning illuminates metro skies  //  By Kenneth HudsonMyth, misperception and the MLS (the real estate industry’s Multiple Listing Service) make basements more hindrance than help in the local housing market. “MLS has no option for basement as a foundation type” in the Oklahoma City market, explains Hancock. Houses with basements are out there, but they are hard to find as a result. Homebuilders are reluctant to take on the added construction expense since it is unlikely to pay off in investment terms in the long run.

Fine – we’ll build a new house with a basement and suffer the consequences of higher construction costs along with leaks, cracks, spiders and snakes. We won’t ever need (or want) to go down there unless a storm is coming, right? Not at all. Obviously Hancock urges people to build basements – that is his business, after all – but the dreaded dungeon myth is simply no longer accurate.

“Most of these myths come from basements built in the 1940s and ’50s,” explains Hancock, a structural engineer by trade. Subsequent advances in technique and technology make modern metro basements safe, dry and enjoyable year-round. Is building a home with a basement more expensive? Yes. But keep in mind, Hancock says, “You can heat and cool a house with a basement for about half the cost of slab housing.” Plus it’s a great place for a ping-pong table. But I digress.

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Great news! We planned ahead, cut our day a bit short and got ourselves safely stowed in our new basement game room well before the storm hit. The weather report says we dodged the worst of it – no twisters this time. That’s the good news. The bad news? We have to poke our heads outside and see what happened to the rest of the house.

Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak in storm damaged area  //  Courtesy Oklahoma Insurance Department
Major storm systems that produce high winds, heavy rains and hail can wreak havoc on a home’s exterior. Roofs and siding naturally bear the brunt of the storm damage, but there are options on the market that may minimize your losses. Price and neighborhood covenant restrictions make composition the most popular roofing material in the area, but that doesn’t mean you have to compromise. “There are varying degrees of impact resistance that can still be considered when choosing a composition roof,” homebuilder Click says.

As for the exterior walls, brick or stone facings will obviously withstand considerable impact. If siding adorns your home, Click notes once again that there are many options on the market. In addition to the familiar vinyl and aluminum versions, siding made of wood and cementitious board is also available. “Cementitious board is becoming a popular choice for the area,” Click shares, “due to its lifespan, rigidity and strength in withstanding impacts.”

If we built or renovated with these durable materials, the outside of our house stands a better chance of avoiding major damage. We may have escaped all personal injury and major property damage … until we realized that we left the car in the driveway, where it was pelted indiscriminately by intergalactic comet-sized hail. Whoops.

It might not be as bad as you think if you followed another piece of advice from your friendly local weather forecaster. “Check your insurance plans at the beginning of the year, preferably in January,” says Lane. “You’re probably going to file an insurance claim every year.”

Nature’s fury  //  Courtesy Oklahoma Insurance DepartmentOklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak agrees and offers some pointers for such a visit. “Sit down with your licensed insurance broker and go through various scenarios,” urges Doak. “Have the agent visit your home or apartment and take pictures of your home and property.” Business owners should ask their insurers about a business interruption evaluation.

The Oklahoma Insurance Department website ( offers a home inventory form. Commissioner Doak stresses the importance of completing such a form before disaster strikes. “In times of major loss, when everything is gone, those pictures and inventory will be helpful” in determining your losses as precisely as possible.

And unfortunately central Oklahoma is no stranger to total loss. For example, over 100,000 claims were filed in the 16-county area around Moore following last May’s tornadoes – some 60,000 homeowner claims and another 45,000 for automobiles. Insurers paid out over $1 billion to policyholders in relation to that one set of events. That’s billion. With a b.

Besides the crucial home inventory form, Commissioner Doak also encourages visits to the OID website for additional information. The Consumer Assistance Division helps over 30,000 Oklahomans file claims each year, and the website generates over 1 million hits annually. While the state’s OID doesn’t track every claim, they do monitor the larger events.

Perhaps most important among the online documents is the Oklahoma Insurance Consumer Bill of Rights. “We worked hard to get that passed for all Oklahomans,” Doak says. Not sure of your rights as a policyholder? It’s all spelled out here in a very clear and concise two-page document. The Consumer Assistance Division is always a free phone call away, too, at 800.522.0071.

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Now back to that car in the driveway. The one that Mother Nature whacked with her ball-peen hammer. An older car with considerable damage might be chalked up as a total loss by your insurance company. If you don’t have comprehensive or “full” coverage, it will be up to you to foot the repair bill.

Cashion, long-exposure lightning show  //  By Chris Sanner and Brandon Goforth,

If you own a newer vehicle and have full coverage, your insurance company will probably write an estimate for the repair bill and leave it up to you to get it fixed. If you own a newer model or you’re still making payments, your best bet is to get it fixed.

One of the more advanced repair techniques on the market, Paintless Dent Repair (PDR for short) is increasingly popular across the metro. PDR is an attractive consumer option whenever possible for a couple of major reasons, says James McElhany, owner of Hail Restore. “There’s less down time, and the value of the vehicle is restored to the level before storm damage.”

Still, it’s caveat emptor (more Latin – sorry – this just means “buyer beware”) in the PDR business. According to McElhany, doing just a little homework on your repair place of choice will go a long way toward your peace of mind. First of all, watch out for storm-chasers – those fly-by-night operations that pop up overnight. “Look up a company’s Better Business Bureau page online or call,” suggests McElhany.

For the record, McElhany’s shop, which has been operating on West Reno Avenue for the past six years, carries an A+ rating with the BBB. He also suggests doing the little things that we may forget to do in a stressful situation. “Be sure to ask for references, preferably from insurance companies, or look up consumer reviews online,” McElhany says.

Also, verify that your repair company of choice is certified by Vale Training Solutions, as that is the only certification recognized by the insurance industry. McElhany, himself a Vale certified Master Craftsman, trains all of his employees and monitors the work done in the shop.

Keep in mind that if the damage is too severe, PDR may simply not work. If PDR isn’t an option, make sure the vendor can both repair the body panels using conventional dent-pulling methods and do the paintwork as well. Finally, McElhany suggests asking your repair shop one last question: “Are you insured if I leave my car here?” With all the talk of weather and insurance and general disaster, we might consider making it our first question.

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Oklahoma weather can be violent and dangerous. While nothing can replace the loss of property, personal effects or especially loved ones, we can strive to minimize those losses by planning ahead and taking immediate action in the face of danger.

Lightning stike over Lake Hefner  //  By Chris Sanner and Brandon Goforth,

Heeding the advice of KOCO Chief Meteorologist Damon Lane, always check the weather report. “We do our best to tell you exactly where a storm is or where it’s heading,” Lane says. “You might not know every intersection around town, so we’ll tell you it’s near the Target or Wal-Mart,” he explains, “because those are the places everyone knows.”

If you are in the market for safe housing, OSHBA President and homebuilder Jeff Click suggests prioritizing life safety. “An in-ground storm shelter, basement or well-built above-ground shelter are the only reliable ways to maximize safety in a tornado’s path.”

If you want to incorporate basement space in an existing property or build a new home with a basement, it is possible to do so in Oklahoma. “We’ve built basements all over the state,” says Basement Contractors Inc. President Mike Hancock. “We can build storm shelters and incorporate a safe-room into an existing walkout basement.”

And if tragedy strikes, you don’t have to be alone, Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak reminds us. “We have been on a public relations campaign since May,” he says. “We are encouraging Oklahomans to be educated” about their rights – and responsibilities – as insurance consumers across the state.

By taking a few precautionary steps, we can prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenarios. The best-case scenario? We all have a great disaster-preparedness plan that we never have to use. Then we can get back to talking about the weather.