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National Weather Service operations as normal despite COVID-19 disruptions

The operations center – Norman’s NWS forecast office employees 27 people, some of whom have been working at home during the pandemic. This photo was taken before staff changes caused by COVID-19. (Photo provided)

By Traci Chapman
Staff Writer

Whether it’s sunny with blue skies or there’s a risk of a severe weather outbreak, Canadian County residents rely, sometimes without even realizing it, on the data analyzed and information provided by the National Weather Service in Norman.

The county is just one of 48 across Oklahoma and eight located in north Texas overseen by the federal agency’s Norman Forecast Office. NWS’s staff are constantly on the lookout for weather anomalies and situations that could mean differences – big or small – to those living and working here.

“We’re at work 24 hours a day, every day providing routine weather information, but our most important job is providing information to give people as much time as possible to be ready for dangerous weather, which in our area includes everything from severe storms with tornadoes, giant hail and flooding rains, ice storms and blizzards, wildfires, extreme heat and cold, and strong winds,” said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist.

Smith works to help manage the Norman office’s preparedness and outreach efforts, as well as working with local officials like Canadian County Emergency Management Director Andrew Skidmore and others charged with ensuring safety during adverse weather or other emergencies.

“I also help manage the office’s preparedness and outreach efforts, and help our office develop, maintain and enhance partnerships with our emergency management and public safety partners, and the broadcast media who work to keep residents in the 56 counties we serve informed and ready to respond to dangerous weather.”

National Weather Service’s Norman Weather Forecast Office has a staff of 27 people, split during the pandemic and continuing now through split operations both at its facility and through staff working from home – which while suspending public access and tours, has not really impacted day-to-day warning and forecast operations, Smith said.

“We’ve been able to maintain operations while at the same time maximizing the safety of our staff,” he said. “While only the core operational staff has been in the office, we’ve been able to really get a lot of support and assistance from those working from home.”

Storm spotter training continued in 2021 – albeit online – with about 1,400 people participating in 18 virtual training classes. Sessions for the year ended in March, although some special trainings could possibly be set in the fall. More information about 2022 sessions would be available early next year, officials said.

Beyond civilian storm spotters, weather prediction and condition information have also become so much more accessible thanks to technology, Smith said. With up-to-the-moment news available on almost everyone’s phone that means alerts are also easily on hand.

“We have more ways than ever before to let people know about the weather – we truly can almost reach out and tap someone on the shoulder and tell them they are in danger from a tornado,” he said in 2018. “Inside the weather office, advances in technology now allow us to detect severe weather more accurately, identify potential tornadoes, estimate the impacts of storms based on radar and other tools and quickly and efficiently communicate that information to a wide audience with the click of a mouse.”

For more information about Norman’s National Weather Service office, look online at its website, located at http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/, its Facebook page or Twitter feed. While tours are currently suspended due to COVID-19, virtual tours are available at https://www.ou.edu/nwc, as well as updates concerning tours and other events once the center is reopened to the public.

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