It’s April, and if you live in the south, the gray pallete of winter is slowly – but perceptibly – changing into a cornucopia of springtime color. It’s warmer now (at last!), and most of us are happily trading the drudgery of overcast, barren trees, and overcoats for the long-awaited promise of blue skies, blooming flowers, and, of course, short sleeves. Even still, this bourgeoning beauty is accompanied by the barely-subconscious understanding that such seasonal delight comes at a price: severe weather.
Every spring, thousands of powerful thunderstorms sweep across the plains of the United States, leaving considerable mayhem and excitement in their wakes. Severe wind storms toss trash cans and trampolines into the streets, while leaving an inconvenient mess of tree branches in front yards. Hail storms cause quite a flurry, too, as folks rush about, trying to avoid the untimely christening of new vehicles. And, of course, the “flash” and “boom” of lightning and thunder never fail to frighten their fair share of small children and yippie dogs. But more often than not, these storms – like the scary-looking-but-relatively-benign beasts of Monsters Inc. – cause more good than harm, leaving behind copious quantities of beneficial rain.
Even so, there remains the collective understanding that these powerful forces cannot always remain so benevolent. The forces of nature are simply too raw, too unbridled. And, in rare fury, they unleash straight winds that can lift the roof off your house, hail that can punch holes through your car’s windshield – and tornadoes that are capable of sweeping your house off its foundation. These are the storms that people talk about for years – even decades – after they occur. These are the Joplins (right), the Tuscaloosas, the Moores – front-page-grabbing events that evoke shock, awe, and horror. Observers near and far may experience a profound empathy, a numbing feeling of fatalism, or a discombobulating sense that, perhaps, these storms have no larger meaning. These are the scenes of war-zone-like macabre, with no one to prosecute.
And these are the storms that create jobs for weather people, like me. The horror of these storms spurs action, and savvy politicians use the moment to mutual advantage. But most meteorologists are not opportunists. In fact, many of us entered the profession because of just such a mega-storm. For me, it was 1990, when a strong tornado hit my hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Then, tornadoes were simply terrifying. But I soon discovered the key to quelling fear: knowledge. As I grew older, I read as much I could find on tornadoes. And the knowledge was freeing: fear led to fascination, and fascination, to understanding. And it is this understanding that I wish to share with you.
First, a warm blanket: as scary as violent tornadoes are, they are very rare. These worst of tornadoes (EF4/5) account for only 2% of all tornadoes in the United States1. Even in the heart of Tornado Alley (right), a single location may experience such a tornado only once in a 10,000 year period2. That means you could live over a hundred lives in Oklahoma and never experience a violent tornado. Nevertheless, these storms are responsible for a disproportionate fraction of tornado deaths1 (67%). To be sure, it isn’t a lottery you want to win. The good news is that you can vastly increase your probability of survival, even in the worst tornadoes. Read the following to do just that.
Steps to Severe Weather Safety
- Review tornado safety tips. It’s obvious, but if you don’t know what to do during a tornado, it will be difficult to survive. Review tornado safety procedures at the beginning of every storm season.
- Make a plan. If a violent tornado is headed right for you, it’ll be tough to think straight. Making a plan ensures that most of your thinking is done before that happens. Ask yourself these questions, and envision potential worst-case scenarios.
a. How will I stay informed before and after a tornado?
b. For whom am I responsible?
c. Where will I go if a warning is issued?
d. What will I need during and after a tornado hits?
- Build an emergency kit. Related to Question D, knowing what you will need during and after a tornado hits is crucial for survival. Food, water, first-aid kit, and boots are just some of the items you’ll need after a tornado hits.
- Know the forecast. To be prepared for tornadoes, you need to know when they are possible. First, check the Hazardous Weather Outlook from your local National Weather Service office to monitor for upcoming severe weather. When severe weather is expected, you should also check out the severe weather outlook from the Storm Prediction Center (SPC); this team of severe weather experts produces daily forecasts for the entire country, and it’s a tremendous resource. Finally, on the day of the potential event, you will want to check the forecast from your local weather office for severe weather updates.
- Receive the warnings. All of the previous tips are great, but if you don’t know when you’ll need to take cover from a tornado, they won’t be of any use to you. There are many ways to receive the warnings, and most of them are good: local television, social media, weather radio, radio, and word-of-mouth are just some of the ways you can get the warning. In particular, I would recommend that you purchase a NOAA Weather Radio. When a tornado warning is issued, a very loud tone will alert you (if you’re asleep, it will wake you) that a tornado is threatening, followed by a direct warning message from the National Weather Service. They are readily available at local stores. Also, if you have a smart phone, I would recommend the iMap Weather Radio app. It has many of the features of a weather radio, and a few additional ones too. However, I would still recommend that you purchase a weather radio, since it will certainly wake you if a tornado warning is issued at night.
If you have any questions about tornado safety, don’t hesitate to ask! I’d be more than happy to answer!
1. Concannon, P., H.E. Brooks, and C. Doswell: “Climatological risk of strong and violent tornadoes in the United States.” 2001. http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/users/brooks/public_html/concannon/
2. Meyer, C., H.E. Brooks, M.P. Kay: “A hazard model for tornado occurrence in the United States.” 2000. http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/users/brooks/public_html/papers/meyeretal.pdf