By Tom Kiurski
Tornadoes are nature’s most violent storms. These rotating funnel-shaped clouds can create winds that reach 300 mph and can devastate a neighborhood in seconds. Each year, about a thousand tornadoes touch down in the United States, leaving behind them a mass of destruction. Storm season also brings severe thunder and lightning storms. Lightning strikes and kills an average of 80 people each year, and injures 300 others. With the severe weather season underway, it is good to review some severe weather facts with your community.
There are plenty of ways to get this information to your community. Use this topic as a speaking point to your audiences during the Spring and Summer seasons. You can print some of the facts and safety tips for school newsletters and for your local cable television announcements. Have your cable department tape a short public service announcement (PSA) on “Tornado Tips” and “Severe Storm Tips” that can be used over again. A short article, like this one, sent to your local newspaper may also reach a large audience.
A tornado occurs when warm moist air comes into contact with a cold front. Tornadoes generally occur near the trailing edge of a thunderstorm. Even if you cannot see the characteristic funnel-shaped cloud, swirling debris can sometimes be spotted from a good distance away. This violently rotating column of air extends down from a thunderstorm to the ground.
Tornadoes can strike quickly, with little or no warning, and move on an average of 30 miles per hour. An average tornado is on the ground less than ten minutes and travels a distance of about five miles. This is an average – they can last longer and travel farther. Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 pm and 9 pm, but can occur at any time. While most tornadoes move from southwest to northeast, they can move in any direction. Tornadoes tend to strike during the spring or summer months.
A “Tornado Watch” means tornadoes are possible. Inform your community to keep alert by watching the sky for approaching storms, a dark greenish sky, loud hail, and a loud roar. Have them keep track of the television/radio reports of any tornadoes and where they are.
A “Tornado Warning” means a tornado has been sighted and citizens are advised to take shelter immediately. Tornado Warnings will usually trigger a community emergency warning siren, to let residents know to take action.
When thunderstorms roll in, have your residents keep an eye to the sky. Look for darkening skies, flashes of light, and listen for the sound of thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. If you hear thunder, seek shelter in a building or car, keeping the windows closed.
The best shelter most homes have is in the basement, under the stairs or under a large, heavy work bench. If the home has no basement, get as many walls between people and the outside as possible. A closet or hallway would be a good choice. Have citizens stay away from windows if at all possible.
A “Disaster Supplies Kit” would be good to keep in a designated shelter. This kit should contain a first aid kit, battery-powered radio and flashlights, bottled water, non-perishable food, and a manual can opener.
There is a myth that people should try to “equalize pressure” in the home by opening windows. It is not suggested to open windows, as this can increase damage in the home and waste precious time during an emergency.
Encourage citizens to take a few minutes and discuss what to do during a tornado emergency with their families. Older children may be home alone when the siren sounds, and will need to know what to do. Younger children will need the reassurance and guidance of trained adults. As in most emergency situations, people don’t use the information a lot, but when they need it, it’s nice to have practiced what to do before the situation arises.
Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999) is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.