Friday, May 27, 2011

Teaching Safety in Tornadoes

            Safety is one of the life skills which I teach my daughter during homeschool.  In the Central and Southern regions of the United States, tornadoes are a strong part of any preparation for safety.  By knowing the danger, making ourselves aware during tornadoes, and planning what to do ahead of time to stay safe, we can be very prepared for tornadic weather.
            The first step to any safety program is to know the danger you are facing.  With the desert in Arizona and New Mexico sending hot, dry air, Canada’s jet stream bringing cold air, and the Gulf of Mexico sending up warm, moist air, the Great Plains and Southern United States have a phenomenon which occurs nowhere else in the world – the Dry Line.  People in these regions are so familiar with dry lines that they may not realize that they are unique to our area – and they are the main reason that Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas see more tornadoes than anywhere else in the world.  Each of these three states sees an average of 50 tornadoes per year.  While it is possible to live in these states all of your life and never see a tornado, you still need to be prepared.  A second region, west of the Ohio Valley, sees a great deal of tornadoes, as well, during the summer months.  Tornadoes have been known to occur in six out of the seven continents (Antarctica is the exception), in all 50 states, and in all 12 months of the year.  So, even though you may not live in an area where tornadoes are common, you still need to know what to do if one does occur.
            Tornadoes do not, as Hollywood implies in multiple movies, simply appear out of nowhere, nor do they chase people personally.  There are special weather conditions which spark tornadoes, and now meteorology has progressed to the point that they can give warning (sometimes several days in advance) that the conditions are going to be right for tornadoes to form.  Warm, moist air (ideally between 70*F - 95*F), and 2 incoming fronts – one a line of dry air and one a front of cooler air – provide the “spark” needed to start multiple tornadic storms, like those seen in the Central and Southern states.  A Tornado Watch is issued over a period of several hours in which severe, tornadic storms may occur, and on those days, people in those areas need to be “weather aware.”  A Tornado Warning is much more specific, and is not usually issued for more than 15 – 45 minutes at a time, and it means that there is a storm which either has already dropped a tornado or very well may do so very soon.  Knowing what to do and preparing for it is the number one way of staying safe during tornadoes.
            Sadly, there have been a “rash” of large tornadoes recently which have resulted in many hundreds of deaths.  The strength of these tornadoes are judged by the strength of damage caused by them, and ranked on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, from an EF-0 (no damage) to an EF-5 (the foundation is wiped clean and grass is scoured off the ground).  Many individual meteorologists have attempted to make an EF-6 rating, but it is not necessary and there is no such thing as an EF-6 tornado – that is simply someone trying to make a name for himself.
Unfortunately, when two tornadoes (with damage somewhere between EF-3 to EF-5) went through major cities in Alabama and Missouri recently, they each resulted in more than 200 deaths and more than 600 injuries in both cities.  In the Oklahoma City Metro Area, however, 7 tornadoes, ranging also from EF-3 to EF-5, hit – all within 4 hours and less than 100 miles from edge to edge of each other – only 10 deaths occurred and 238 people reported injuries which needed to be treated in local hospitals.  More than 600 homes were damaged or destroyed in the Oklahoma City region (not including businesses), yet there were relatively few people injured or killed, particularly when compared to the tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri.  Why? 
            During a tornado, we need adequate warning.  I lived in Atlanta for five years, and I was shocked with how differently the meteorologists handled tornado threats in that major city.  I remember one night when two tornadoes were on the ground in the suburb of Atlanta.  When this happened, I saw a “rolling words” bar scroll a warning at the bottom of the television screen, saying that there were 2 tornadoes in Smyrna and that they were headed northeast.  The words on the screen warned those in the path of the tornadoes to take shelter, and they flashed an image of the two counties in the Tornado Warning – all the while, showing the television program.  During the next commercial break (about ten minutes after the warning was first issued), the meteorologist came on and repeated the same warning, even though the tornadoes had gone back up.  There were never any streets listed, never any specifics given at any time as to who was actually in the path of the tornados.  They didn’t have any video of the tornadoes on the ground until several hours later - on the eleven o-clock news they showed footage for about ten seconds. 
In Oklahoma, when tornadoes are on the ground, the meteorologists go into “severe weather mode,” and the three local television stations and local news radio stations go on full alert to the weather.  They tell exactly where the tornado (or tornado threat) is by naming streets.  They show live footage from a helicopter and trained storm spotters of the tornado on the ground, or the funnels hanging from the wall clouds.  Everyone in the area of the warning has no reason not to take shelter.  While some people (particularly if they are not in the path of the tornado) are irritated because they cannot watch their favorite television programs, most people in the area are grateful that they receive such wonderful coverage and warnings – and that saves lives, as shown on May 24, 2011. 
            Once you have been warned and know you are in the danger area, you should follow previously prepared plans for safety.  Tornado shelters are fabulous if you have them, but if you don’t, you still need to know what you are going to do BEFORE the tornado sirens sound.  In fact, most towns in Oklahoma do not have public tornado shelters.  In the 1980’s, when public shelters were common, people would wait until the tornado sirens sounded before they would get in their cars and head out to the shelter.  The problem is that when the sirens sound, it is too late to go anywhere.  At least three of the ten deaths in the Oklahoma tornadoes were people who were in the process of seeking shelter when they were hit by a tornado (two were in their cars and one was running out of her trailer when a neighbor’s trailer landed on her).  That is WAY too late to go somewhere – when the sirens sound, take shelter where you are.  Fortunately, most people in the Oklahoma tornado areas either opted to go somewhere safe at the beginning of the tornado outbreak or to go to their safe place on their own property.  That did mean many dinners were very late and television shows were missed, but it also meant people survived what could have been seven deadly tornadoes. 
Unfortunately, at least 3 others who were killed in Oklahoma followed another common saying in Tornado Alley:  “When the sirens sound, go outside and look.”  The three that I have heard about did even more than that – they took their internet-accessible cell phones, their video cameras, and a buddy, and they hopped into their pickup trucks and drove out to see the tornadoes for themselves.  (Okay, they may not all have been in a pickup truck, but I know 2 of them were).  This is the most ludicrous thing anyone can do – and I have never understood those who do this!  The storm chasers which are seen on television have a great deal of training.  Most of them have a degree in meteorology, or they have at least had training from people who have this degree.  Professional storm chasers also have several people who sit in a nice, safe office somewhere with a high-resolution radar and tell them where to go which allows them to good footage, but also stay safe.  The purpose is also different for these groups – professional storm chasers do it for the purpose of warning others, or gathering data which will increase warning times to save lives.  “Good Ole’ Boys” who go out storm chasing do it for the adrenaline rush, and possibly for pictures or video – which people could see if they turned on their television, anyway. 
At least six of the ten deaths in Oklahoma occurred because the people were not where they should have been after the sirens sounded.  I don’t live in the other two regions who were so tragically hit by tornadoes, so I cannot tell you why there were so many deaths.  I can guess that the warnings were not publicized as early and as loudly (and with such force) as they were during the Oklahoma tornado outbreak of May 24.  Because of this, I can also guess that some of the victims in Alabama and Missouri did not know the tornado was even there, or that they did not know what to do if they did know it was coming. 
Any death is tragic, but a death that can be prevented is just horrifying.  I do not know if there will be any more large tornadoes this year, or where they will happen.  There are no guarantees that, even if you do the right thing, that an accident still won’t occur, though you greatly increase the chances that it won’t.  I do know, however, that with enough warning and planning, you can keep your family safe during a tornado.


  1. Very well written. I did not realize about the dry line phenomenon until I moved to WI and never heard about it again.

    I have to tell you this, regarding Hollywood Movies. I was up here in WI visiting (prior to moving/marriage) my fiance & we went with his family to see the movie Twister in the theater. I learned something very, very interesting (well, to me, given those 15 years in OK). People outside of Tornado Alley do not realize that you can get multiple tornadoes out of one storm. What happened these last few weeks in OK, MO, MS, etc. is an extremely foreign concept to him. The man behind us alerted me to this misconception (and then others at work confirmed it). He stated, "This is so bogus! There would never be so many tornadoes in one day, let alone in one storm." I literally turned around and laughed at him. I then told him (nicely) that he was highly mistaken and obviously had never lived where this was a frequent occurrence.

  2. I am always surprised about the misconceptions about tornadoes. When I was 16, I met a guy from California. He was literally shaking and wouldn't move out of a corner of the shelter we were in. He said he was more afraid of tornadoes than earthquakes. I really didn't understand that! Tornadoes affect a generally small area, whereas earthquakes affect entire cities! I guess we get used to the disasters we "know."

  3. I learned so much reading this! You obviously know your stuff about tornadoes. Having only lived in Oklahoma less than 3 years, a lot of this is still new to me. I've been hearing people talk about a dry line by didn't know what it was... and the ratings, etc. Glad to know the meteorologists "have our backs" so to speak!