Katie Western practices her lines for the upcoming National Weather Festival. She’s majoring in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma and is one of the festival’s Weather Friends, a group of superheroes representing each kind of severe weather. Katie’s character goes by the name “Swirl Girl.” She’ll run around in a costume and answer questions about tornado preparedness. And even though it’s fun, Katie realizes her role may be more important this year than it has been in years past.
“I don’t know if I necessarily feel pressure,” Katie said. “I do feel like there’s a chance that I could get asked more questions than the other ones. But I do feel like I need to prepare a little bit more just to make sure I answer questions properly, in the way the National Weather Service would like, these really important questions that need to be answered.”
Western and the other Weather Friends have worked to create skits that relay important information without scaring anyone off. She says it’s a difficult balance to find, especially with the May tornadoes still fresh in people’s minds. And Western isn’t the only one aware of the change of pace.
“In the community, just with people I’ve talked to, people I know, everyone is more afraid of tornadoes after what we’ve seen,” Keli Pertle said. She’s the Public Affairs Specialist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She also acts as the National Weather Festival Coordinator.
“So we’re trying to, with this event, address that and say, ‘You can be safe. We can’t stop the tornadoes, but we can do everything we can to provide you with information beforehand on what to expect,’” Pertle said. “We can provide information now so that you can be prepared next spring and be confident in your actions.”
So Pertle, along with other Weather Festival organizers, made key changes to the event in order to better equip citizens next time a storm hits. This year’s theme is “Prepare, Respond, Restore,” and exhibits include a new “Ask the Expert” booth where people can find answers to questions about storm shelters, government organizations and other tornado-related concerns.
But Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Rick Smith says one of the most noticeable changes will actually take place outside the Weather Center, in the building’s parking lot.
“Instead of the parking lot full of storm chasing vehicles, we’re going to have a parking lot full of emergency response vehicles,” Smith said. “So the Moore and Norman Fire Departments and the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the National Guard units that had their thermal imaging hardware that they were using to search for survivors after the tornadoes.”
Smith says they’re not trying to discourage storm chasing, even though it’s easy to see it that way. Instead, the National Weather Center team wanted to recognize the people who worked in the immediate aftermath of the storms.
Smith hopes that by highlighting emergency responders, people affected by the May tornadoes can feel reassured knowing who is working behind the scenes.
“We want to show those people, if they come to the weather festival, look at who’s got your back, look who’s watching out for you,” Smith said. “Not only all the meteorologists at the building, but our partners at the TV stations, and all these people in emergency management, fire, police, public safety who are also there.”
The National Weather Center expects more people to attend the festival this year because of the recent tornadoes. As for whether or not the changes at this year’s event will be permanent, Keli Pertle won’t promise anything. She only says the team will adapt to whatever the coming year’s weather brings.
The National Weather Festival takes place at the National Weather Center Saturday, November 2nd from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and is open to the public.