By Eric Waage
MINNEAPOLIS (June 6, 2013) — The deadly start to the 2013 tornado season is a wake-up to all of us who live in tornado prone states. It also is a call to develop a strong
Weather awareness and preparation for the worst doesn’t cost money or take much time. But tornado sense can increase your odds of survival.
Tornado sense can save your life and the lives of loved ones, friends, workmates and employees.
Dedicate 10 minutes each spring to prepare your mind for another tornado season. Then, take one minute each month to mentally practice the actions you would take, at home, at work or at school, if a tornado hit. Finally, take a few seconds each day to be aware of the weather conditions and your surroundings. If you read this entire article, you are well on your way to becoming someone who will make the best decisions possible under a tornado threat.
Tornado sense has five parts:
Be aware of weather conditions. The best survival stories are the ones you’ll never see in the paper, such as: “Family saved by deferring boat trip due to severe weather forecast.”
Check forecasts daily during tornado season (May-August), and be prepared to adjust your plans. If even a small chance of thunderstorms is forecast for your area, check updated weather forecasts several more times during the day. Free resources for weather information include the Twin Cities National Weather Service at www.crh.noaa.gov/mpx, the continuous weather stream on TPT WX television (KTCA Digital 2.4 and via select cable providers) and some radio and TV stations.
When thunderstorms start to pop up, check their movement on radar frequently. See if the storm is becoming violent on its way to your location by checking nearby counties for severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. Staying connected with the weather situation will prevent dangerous surprises.
Know your location.
As you listen to reports of tornado movement, knowing your location can save your life. Understanding forecasts and reading radar requires knowledge of basic geography. Cities are generally the smallest areas used for severe weather warnings. More commonly, forecasters will narrow warnings only to the county level. It is simply not possible to name individual neighborhoods, schools, stores and golf courses that are at risk.
As you travel your region for work, shopping or recreation, read the signs along the road so you know when you have passed into another city or county. Do this often enough and you will develop a sense about where you are at all times.
It is also important to be able to identify where you are on a map. Use a highway map to locate the places where you and your loved ones live,
work and frequent. You should become able to identify your location on a radar map just by seeing your county’s shape. Radar maps often only show
county boundaries, large cities and sometimes major highways. Learn city and county names, and learn how to place locations within county boundaries.
A tornado warning is actually the last stretch of a long trail of clues that should prepare you for action. A tornado sense mindset means that you are forewarned and ready to act. Most killer tornado conditions are forecast days in advance and should come as no surprise.
A few days in advance of when severe weather is expected, the National Weather Service issues a large-scale and very general Hazardous Weather Outlook.
Several hours in advance of the expected violent weather they will issue a watch, narrowed down to county level. A watch means that weather conditions seem right for the development of tornadoes. This is your last notification to be ready to act if you hear a warning.
When tornadoes are seen by trained spotters or by radar, then a tornado Warning is issued for specific areas. A warning usually offers about 10 minutes’ notice before a tornado, but it can be much less time. When a warning is sounded for your area, you must take immediate action.
If you are outside you may hear sirens, if they are installed in your area. Outdoor warning sirens sound for three minutes in a steady tone during a warning. All metro area counties sound sirens for tornado warnings. Most also sound their sirens when straight line winds approach hurricane force at 70 mph or more. Know your county’s siren policy, as well as those of the counties you frequent.
There are many other warning methods. Among the very best warning tools is a NOAA Weather Radio that constantly monitors for broadcast warnings.
Local television stations will usually provide weather captions on their screens. Only a few radio stations provide weather warning services; many broadcast automated programming and are managed elsewhere. WCCO AM (830) and Minnesota Public
Radio network (FM 91.1 and many others) are among those who reliably broadcast weather warnings. Several, free or low cost smart phone apps will alert you to severe weather. Learn more at www.weather.gov/subscribe. People with qualifying mobile phones can get automatic calls from the National Weather Service when a tornado warning is issued.
Many digital commercial billboards also will provide tornado warnings in the Twin Cities area.
Choose good shelter.
Despite our technological advances, it is your shelter choice that most determines your survival. Experience tells us that you should be in a small, windowless interior room on the lowest level of a structure for the best shot at survival. Know where these spots are located in your home, workplace, school and other places. If you are in unfamiliar surroundings during a tornado risk day, look around for places that might offer good shelter. Cars, boats and mobile homes are not good shelter.
Sometimes, there will be no good alternative for shelter, and that’s where tornado sense could have kept you out of a dangerous situation.
Accept the facts.
To develop a tornado sense mindset also requires a reality check. Know this:
- Adequate warning is there for those who listen. In almost every case of a killer tornado, there were days of indications, hours of alert time, and many minutes of warning.
- Outdoor warning sirens are not ‘always going off.’ Monthly tests plus the annual average of just over one siren activation for storms in Hennepin County, adds up only 27 minutes a year.
- Finally, there is not a single spot in Minnesota where a tornado cannot hit. Weather that spawns tornadoes rises miles into the sky and releases huge amounts of energy. These forces are far too big to be directed by a river valley, hilly terrain, hot pavement or tall skyscrapers. Thunderstorms produce many deadly hazards in addition to tornadoes (lightning, hail, extreme winds, flooding).
If you have a healthy tornado sense mindset, you and your loved ones will be well-prepared to weather any storm.
Eric Waage is director of Hennepin County Emergency Management.