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The Arkansas River, at the Gathering Place’s shores, in Tulsa, Oklahoma | Photo by Nate Morris — senior editor and writer
By Deon Osborne, contributing writer
Oklahomans are used to having multiple weather events in the same week or even the same day. But the damage to life and property from this Spring’s increased flooding and tornado activity has set the Nation’s eyes on the Southern Plains.
After nearly 100 tornadoes struck the state this year so far, killing several people and injuring dozens more, and with some areas receiving more rain in the last several weeks than they normally do in a year, local leaders, businesses and communities are slowly healing from what may become the new normal.
Governor Stitt’s emergency disaster declaration for all 77 counties has reached the ears of the White House, with Vice President Pence touring the damage and the president quickly offering aid to the state that voted for him overwhelmingly, a stark contrast from the months-long stand-off against offering aid to fire-stricken California or hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
While Republicans in Congress have finally allowed aid funding to sail through for other states ravaged by extreme storms after months of political bickering, many are calling the recent extreme weather in Oklahoma and other Midwestern states a result of man-made climate change.
In order to get an understanding of what has caused these weather phenomena and what communities can do to prepare, the Black Wall Street Times spoke with an Oklahoma Climatologist who wrote a chapter of the U.S.’s 2017 National Climate Assessment dealing with the Southern Great Plains.
Dr. Kevin Kloesel is the director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.
River Side Dr. in Tulsa, Oklahoma
First off, what is your perspective on Oklahoma’s recent tornados and flooding?
“The short answer is welcome to Oklahoma weather,” Dr. Kloesel said. “These are all things we’ve experienced before, but the challenge is how prepared are we?”
Kloesel said the jargon from meteorologists needs to be more user-friendly in order to help educate the public. He said terms like ‘100-year flood’ confuse people and don’t clearly illustrate that “it’s going to occur with some frequency, but we never know which years,” Dr. Kloesel said.
Are these storms because of man-made climate change or natural causes?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Dr. Kloesel said. “When record weather starts to occur with increasing frequency, we’ve gotta wake up, right?”
While the science declaring that man-made pollution and waste has rapidly altered the carbon levels in the atmosphere, there are also natural cycles and phenomenon that will always be with us.
“You don’t get an amazing chocolate chip cookie without a whole lot of ingredients,” Dr. Kloesel said.
“And when you’re eating the cookie without knowing the ingredients, it’s tough to know how to recreate it.”
Kloesel’s metaphor illustrates the difficult task climatologists face when deciphering all the factors that contribute to changing trends in extreme weather events.
“Climate change certainly participates,” Dr. Kloesel said. “It is one of those ingredients. Not the only ingredient. Natural phenomena and natural cycles will always exist.
What can we do to prepare?
While Green New Deal activists, legislators, and some Democratic presidential candidates have called for drastic action on climate change by limiting the pollution and waste going into the air, Oklahoma’s leading climatologist said local communities actually have a bigger impact on safety and security through what they do on the ground.
This fact rings truest for communities in West and North Tulsa that are already underserved and often overlooked.
“How we build our houses, where we build our houses,” Dr. Kloesel said. “Traffic flow patterns, retail designs, how we store stormwater: It’s the collective whole of all of those ingredients that lead you to the chocolate cookie.”
Dr. Kloesel said cities and towns should have control over how they go about solving these problems, and residents need to be conscious of the day-to-day risks from the weather in Oklahoma.
“When it flooded 30 years ago it was like wow look at all that farmland that flooded,” Dr. Kloesel said. “Now it’s a whole neighborhood. What are folks doing to prepare themselves given the fact that that same plot of land flooded 30 years ago? And that’s not climate change. That is simply we’ve developed areas that are at risk.”
After helping with storm relief efforts in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, Dr. Kloesel observed that officials there are considering rezoning areas that are flood prone and drastically limiting development in those areas. Dr. Kloesel said Oklahoma should consider similar proactive options as a cheaper alternative instead of waiting until after the disaster strikes.
“You don’t get a mortgage unless you have homeowners insurance,” Dr. Kloesel said. “You don’t get to drive a car unless you have auto insurance. But we’ve not taken that step further to say what are we doing to insure ourselves against these weather risks that we have in Oklahoma every year.”
Ironically, in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and his anti-immigration policies, residents might one day become refugees themselves. When asked whether the climate could one day force Oklahomans to pack up and go, Dr. Kloesel didn’t rule it out.
“We’ve gotten to that point in places around the country,” Dr. Kloesel said. “We won’t tell you where to live, but you need to be aware of risks and take precautions.
With a light-hearted laugh overshadowing the seriousness of the issue, he stressed the need for proactive action.
“Almost anywhere you live on this planet you’re at risk of the atmosphere, or earthquakes, or volcanoes or something, right? The Earth is ultimately going to win here. That’s the issue.”
Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. Deon received the Governor’s Commendation in 2017 for his videography highlighting a statewide distracted driving prevention program and runs a freelance video marketing service at indepthwithdeonfilms.com. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works as a policy intern at the Oklahoma Policy Institute.