Oklahoma is the 20th largest state in the US. In it, you’ll discover many awesome cities and natural places to explore. It is home to 39 Native American tribes— that’s more than anywhere else in the country. This alone reinforces the fact that in the state you’ll find a very unique blend of cultures.
The Sooner State is known for being passionate about their sports teams, country music, frying just about anything you can eat, and the best barbecue.
It is also known as the state with the craziest weather. It’s not uncommon to experience all four seasons on the same day! Hang tight to your cowboy hats as we discuss the natural events that occur in this disaster-prone state.
What natural disasters does Oklahoma have?
Oklahoma’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, severe storms, tornadoes, floods, winter storms, extreme heat and droughts, landslides, and power outages.
Between 1953 and 2019, Oklahoma made 181 major disaster declarations, of which fires and severe storms happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
It’s no question that the Sooner State has been significantly impacted by fires. The statistics of previous occurrences should make us aware that this is an issue Oklahomans need to become prepared for.
These are some numbers to consider:
- Oklahoma ranks among the top 10 US states when it comes to the risk of property damage as a result of wildfires.
- In an average year, over a million acres of land are burned by landowners to manage their land. The problem here becomes when any of these prescribed fires get out of control.
- Between 2000 and 2007, the state experienced an average of 1,458 wildfires per month.
Wildfire season in Oklahoma occurs during the driest months experienced in the state. It begins around the end of fall and lasts through early spring.
It’s also possible for there to be fires in July and August as a result of the climate, especially during periods of high temperatures, drought, and strong winds.
One of the worst fires in the state’s history was the Rhea Fire that occurred in Dewey County in April 2018. While the cause remains unknown, the effects were devastating.
The fire burned over 286,000 acres as well as homes and infrastructure. Several injuries and at least one fatality were also reported.
The main cause of fires in the state is linked to human activity, such as the careless burning of trash and smoking machinery or equipment that comes into contact with a fuel source, such as dry grasslands or shrubs.
Other contributing factors include the weather, current levels of drought, and wind.
We must do our part to prevent fires from occurring or getting out of hand. Only perform prescribed burns on the days when the danger is low and never leave a flame unattended.
Create defensible space by trimming tree branches that are touching your roof, and keeping firewood (and other flammable items) at a safe distance from your house.
Check out this guide to learn how to mitigate and prepare for wildfires, plus download the free checklist!
2. Severe Storms
Oklahoma is known for its severe weather and intense storms, such as rotating supercell thunderstorms, lightning, squall lines, dust storms, strong gusty winds, large hail (after all, it is located in hail alley), and heavy rainfall.
The peak season begins in late spring and lasts until early summer, and briefly peaks again in the fall. The least number of storms occur during the winter months of December and January.
Each part of the state experiences a different number of storms annually. The far western panhandle has about 60 stormy days each year. The eastern portion of the state gets about 55 severe thunderstorms a year and the southwestern region averages around 45.
The Sooner State is ranked among the top in the United States when it comes to lightning. In 2019, it ranked fourth based on the national average with more than 6 million strikes. In terms of lightning-related fatalities, it ranks 16th.
The average precipitation varies from one region to another. In the far southeastern portion of the state, there are about 56 inches of rain annually. In the western panhandle, it’s only about 17 inches.
On October 11, 1973, the state set a record when the City of Enid received 15.68 inches of rain within 24 hours.
As before-mentioned, Oklahoma is located in a region known as Hail Alley. Parts of the state can receive at least five or more hail-producing storms with hail that measures an inch in diameter. While there is an unofficial report of an 8” hailstone sighting in 1935, the largest official hail report in the state was 6” in diameter.
Intense dust storms occasionally sweep through the region as well, but none have been as fierce as the Great Dust Storms of the 1930s.
Due to drought, overused farmland, and gusty winds, dust blew around state-wide to the point that there was little to no visibility at times. Dust covered absolutely everything. People could not escape it despite their best intentions to seal vulnerable areas in their homes.
Regardless of where you live in Oklahoma, it’s crucial to be prepared. Severe storms can lead to other major disasters, like floods, mudslides, and power outages.
While the boundaries of Tornado Alley are not clearly defined, there’s no question that Oklahoma lies within that region. The Sooner State averages 55 twisters per year.
Under the appropriate weather conditions, Oklahoma can experience tornadic activity year-round, however, the majority of them occur during the spring and summer months.
Nearly three-quarters of all tornadoes in the state occur between April and June.
Due to the climate, most of these happen between the hours of noon and midnight (CST) with an average peak between the hours of 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM.
Oklahoma has had its fair share of destructive tornadoes, at least thirteen EF-5s were observed since 1905. Some of its worst were the following:
- A devastating tornado struck the city of Snyder on May 10, 1905. It was an EF5 tornado that lasted around two-and-a-half hours and left unbelievable damage. This deadly tornado was responsible for the loss of life of 100 people and injury of 150 others.
- The deadliest tornado and overall deadliest natural disaster in Oklahoma remembered as the Glazier-Higgins-Woodward tornadoes.
This powerful tornado outbreak began on April 9, 1947, in the Texas Panhandle and produced several tornadoes that extended through a total of 220-miles. The city of Woodward was hit by the most violent one (F5).
This massive tornado swept through more than a hundred city blocks leaving thousands of homes, businesses, and personal property in complete destruction.
Other cities throughout the state reported significant damage as well, but Woodward got the worst of it with supercell thunderstorms as well. Thousands of people were injured and the death toll reached 113.
- The largest tornado outbreak recorded in the state occurred between May 3 and 4, 1999. Over 70 tornadoes were observed throughout the morning and afternoon.
In Oklahoma alone, the damage done to homes and infrastructure reached $1.2 billion, as well as 675 injuries and 40 fatalities. Much damage was reported in Wichita, KS too.
- On May 20, 2013, an F5 tornado with 210 mph winds tore through the city of Moore and left 377 people injured, 24 dead, and $2 billion in damages. This event is remembered as the Moore tornado.
Due to the location and climate of the Sooner State, we can expect to see unfortunate events like these happen again in the future. You must become prepared now.
These are simple steps that you can implement right away. More importantly, learn what a tornado watch, tornado warning, and tornado sirens mean.
Keep your storm shelter or underground safe room stocked with emergency supplies, food, and water. Identify safe locations to seek shelter if a tornado strikes while you’re not home.
Have your emergency contacts list up to date and discuss your plan with all your family members so everyone is on the same page.
The Sooner State is made up of many rivers, tributaries, and thousands of creeks and streams.
During periods of heavy precipitation, these water systems are at risk of swelling and causing regional floods and flash flooding.
Floods in Oklahoma can happen at any time throughout the year but they’re more common between the spring and fall months when the state receives its highest levels of precipitation. Nearly two-thirds of all floods in the state occur between April and July.
Oklahoma has experienced a few catastrophic floods in recent years. One of the worst occurred in May 2015. After nearly five years of drought, the state received the most rainfall in its recorded history in a single month.
Due to the stiffness of the ground, runoffs were naturally created because the soil could not absorb the water quickly enough.
As a result, there was massive state-wide flooding— it was so devastating that the landscape was permanently changed in parts of the country!
Homes, businesses, power lines, roads, and highways were either washed away or submerged completely underwater. The total estimated cost of damages was in the billions.
Preparing for floods and flash flooding is a must if you live near rivers or streams. If your town or community has flooded in the past, there’s a great possibility that it’ll happen again in the future, so be mindful of that.
Property owners should be aware that most home insurance policies do not cover water damage from floods. Consider looking into alternative options that provide the proper insurance.
When a flood is imminent, get to higher ground immediately. Never attempt to cross flood waters.
In this preparedness guide, you can learn how to protect your home as well as how to stay safe before, during, and after a flood.
5. Winter Storms
Oklahoma’s winter climate varies quite a bit from one region to another, but it’s generally very cold, windy, and in some places snowy.
When it comes to winter storms, the Western Panhandle receives the bulk of it, whereas it’s a bit milder in the extreme Southeast. The Northwestern region usually has one or more days of snowfall each year, while the southeast may not get any snow for several years.
As for winter temperatures, the Western Panhandle gets approximately 140 days a year when the temperatures fall below 32°F.
In the Southeast, this number is reduced to 60 days per year. The lowest temperature ever recorded in the state occurred on February 10, 2011, when it reached -31°F at Nowata.
In any case, intense snowstorms, blizzards, and ice storms can (and do) occur state-wide.
One of the worst blizzards to date began on January 31st, 2011, and lasted through February 1st, 2011. Northeast Oklahoma received up to 21 inches of snow and Tulsa received 14 inches— the most in the city’s recorded history!
The storm was accompanied by gusty winds. This storm set many records for Oklahoma and nearly shut down the entire state completely— roads were difficult to drive on, businesses and schools were closed, and the below-freezing temperatures kept people indoors for a few days.
Our guide dives deeper into the specifics, but at the very least, you should have an emergency kit in your vehicle with some personal belongings to keep you warm. Also keep a fully stocked kit at home if you’re snowed in for a few days (with the possibility of no electricity).
6. Extreme Heat & Droughts
The Sooner State experiences hot and humid summers and averages temperatures around the low to mid-90°F between June and August.
The highest temperature recorded in the state was 120°F on multiple occasions and locations. The first time was during the outrageously hot summer of 1936 and the second time was during the summer of 1943.
One thing that can make the summer feel even hotter is the level of humidity. On average, the humidity in the Panhandle is 60% and about 10% higher in the east and southeast.
Hot summers are sometimes accompanied by seasonal or long-term droughts. Droughts cause numerous problems, including an elevated risk of wildfires, crop production failure, and runoffs leading to flash floods (the moment it finally rains).
The longest drought since 2000 began on November 2, 2010, and ended on May 26, 2015. At its peak, D4 (or exceptional drought) affected 69.82% of Oklahoma territory.
As of the writing of this article, over 10% of the state is under D2 (severe drought), over 15% is under D1 (moderate drought), and 45% is under D0 (abnormally dry).
To prepare for hot summers, you should stay up to date with the local forecast. Under certain circumstances, the local government will open cooling centers where people can enjoy a safe air-conditioned place to work or hang out.
When too many people use their A/C units, the power grid might become overwhelmed and lead to a temporary power outage.
In the event of a long-term drought, learn to be water-wise. In this article, we offer some helpful tips!
Oklahoma has a moderate susceptibility and low occurrence of landslides. On average, 20 landslides are reported per year and they mostly occur in the eastern region.
The main causes are linked to the soil texture, the angle of the slope, soil saturation, precipitation in areas that have been previously burned by wildfires, and man-made causes.
The southeastern corner of the state has experienced the majority of the damage as a result of roads, highways, and infrastructure that have collapsed as a result of a landslide.
If you live in a landslide-prone area, it would be a good idea to reinforce and strengthen weak slopes near your home and property. These landslide mitigation tips can provide insight on how to become prepared.
8. Power Outages
We are so used to having 24/7 access to electricity that we oftentimes forget what life could be like if we ever had to go without. The electric system is extremely vulnerable and even a small-scale disaster can cause long disruptions, not to mention large disasters.
Power outages occur everywhere in the United States and are oftentimes caused by natural hazards or man-made errors. The total duration of an outage in Oklahoma is 3 hours.
One of the worst outages in Oklahoma’s history occurred in December 2007 after an ice storm damaged electrical infrastructure and knocked out power to thousands of residents in all of the state’s 77 counties. A state of emergency was declared by the governor. It took over a week for the power to be restored in some areas.
We must become prepared for long-term power outages, especially if anyone in your household requires the use of an electric medical device.
In this article, we discuss what you need to know about outages, including how to stay safe in the midst of one and how to make preparations ahead of time.
Natural disaster resources for Oklahoma
Oklahoma is known for several types of natural catastrophes, so it shouldn’t even become a second-thought to become prepared.
If you don’t know where to start, check out the following resources to guide you on your preparedness journey.
- A place to get real-time text message notifications of possible hazardous weather is the National Weather Service app.
Download the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - NOAA Weather Radio for free and enable the alerts on your device. When a storm is predicted, you’ll get notified, as well as receive updates while the storm is occurring.
Another place to get up-to-date information is via your local radio and local television stations as well as their social media platforms.
- Your disaster preparedness plans are going to have to be altered slightly to match the uniqueness of each disaster type. While it can become an overwhelming process, thanks to the unbelievable amount of information available, we want to help make this process easy and accessible to you.
Our disaster guides will help you tailor your plans accordingly and each one includes printable checklists which can be downloaded for free. Find all of our disaster guides here.
- Kick up your preparedness knowledge up one notch (or a few notches) by getting trained in person. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) offers free disaster simulations and classes throughout the United States.
Their program will help solidify what you’ve already learned online about preparedness and you’ll feel ready to overcome future disasters. Find your local CERT here.
- Cities take a long time to recover from natural disasters but their neighboring communities become a huge support system to help them get by.
Oklahoma’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is an organization that identifies the needs of the affected region and looks to the neighboring communities to find the resources to meet those needs. If you’re interested in helping neighboring communities after disasters, check out Oklahoma VOAD.
A disaster response organization that helps in recovery efforts is the American Red Cross. They provide emergency shelter, food, and other supplies to disaster survivors.
Another organization that provides assistance to a disaster area is Samaritan's Purse. They help with debris cleanup and provide spiritual support.
- If you need more information about state assistance before, during, and after a disaster, you can check out the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management website.
I hope you enjoyed learning about natural disasters in Oklahoma.
We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plan according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!
Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!
Be sure to share this article with someone who you think may enjoy it too!