Want weird weather? Come to Oklahoma!
OKLAHOMA CITY - After one of the strangest local weather days in memory, an Oklahoma woman with a sense of humor asked on Twitter earlier this week:
"Wanna experience the apocalypse before it happens? Visit Oklahoma!" She posted that on Monday night shortly after a 4.7-magnitude aftershock earthquake shook the state. The temblor occurred not long after six tornadoes ripped through southwest Oklahoma, which was preceded by flash-flooding in an area that's been plagued by a historic drought.
"Seriously, WHAT'S GOING ON?" someone else tweeted that night. The answers vary. Global warning? Coincidence? Bad luck? Bad timing? End of time? There's agreement on only one thing: It's been weird all year. "Even for Oklahoma, this is crazy," said Rick Smith, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman. "Since January, we've been setting records. People are just kind of amazed and shocked."
State records set this year have ranged from the lowest temperature (31 degrees below zero in Nowata in northeast Oklahoma) to snowfall in a 24-hour period (27 inches, also in Nowata) to the largest hail stone (a spiky, six-inch piece recovered in Gotebo, in southwest Oklahoma).
This year also produced the state's highest-ever-recorded surface wind speed (151 miles per hour near El Reno, outside of Oklahoma City) and biggest known earthquake (5.6 magnitude, breaking the 1956 record). On Wednesday, Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 20 counties because of earthquakes, tornadoes and severe storms.
"It's been a tough year for Oklahoma when it comes to weather and natural disasters, but we're doing everything we can to help," Fallin said in a statement announcing the declaration. The state's record-breaking earthquake got everyone's attention. In the past week, counting both foreshock and aftershock earthquakes that sandwiched the state record-breaking rumbler, 32 earthquakes have been recorded in central Oklahoma. In Meeker, population 968, east of Oklahoma City, the town administrator was describing the damage and wondering aloud if his town, founded in 1903, could survive a California-style "big one." "I'm beginning to think God's a little mad at us," Jim Howard said.
Howard was joking, but questions of the Almighty are coming into play in Oklahoma, where Christian beliefs underpin much of the culture. An Oklahoma City TV station interviewed a preacher who proclaimed, "I think it's pointing up to the end of time." That belief is not shared by all, even fervent believers. Nancy Dailey, a school teacher in Oklahoma City whose father was a Baptist preacher, dismisses doomsday talk from the pulpit, saying it just scares people. Still, she said she overheard two co-workers sharing end-of-the-world talk in the teacher's lounge. "After all these natural disasters we've been having, at some point all you have left is humor to try and cope with it," said Gary McManus, associate climatologist for the state.
There is at least one benefit to the state's weather. Norman, home to the National Weather Festival, has become a magnet for meteorology students from around the country. The University of Oklahoma there built a five-story, $69 million National Weather Center six years ago, and installed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) as its largest tenant. This week, NOAA said it will send the university $75 million in federal funds for weather radar research to improve severe storm forecasts and increase understanding of extreme weather. Smith, the National Weather Service meteorologist, calls OU a "top-of-the-list" institution for people serious about weather. "For going to school in a natural laboratory, you can't beat it." McManus agreed: "You don't want to go to L.A. and study endless sunny skies."