America’s tornado drought is officially over. The last few years have been relatively quiet, with few large, violent tornadoes. Last year there were no tornado-related deaths in traditional Tornado Alley, stretching from Texas to Iowa. But so far this year, 31 Americans have lost their lives to tornadoes, nature’s most extreme, unpredictable and capricious wind storms.
In the second half of May, at least 366 tornadoes were observed east of the Rockies. Once again the United States is living up to its reputation as the tornado capital of the planet.
Over that span of 14 days I watched in morbid fascination as a remarkably consistent witch’s brew of meteorological conditions created tornado weather from Texas to Pennsylvania — at last count over 600 tornadoes in May, the most of any month since April 2011. That was the year of the super outbreak and the catastrophic Joplin, Mo., tornado, which claimed 161 lives and injured 1,150 more.
After much reflection I have a few minor weather observations and assorted meteorological gripes I need to get off my chest.
1. A warning is worse than a watch.
Too many people still don’t know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A tornado watch means “watch out”; conditions aloft are ripe for the creation of spinning “supercell” thunderstorms capable of spinning up tornadoes. Go about your normal activities, but stay alert and be ready to move to a safe location if threatening weather approaches your location. Watches are issued for thousands of square miles and last four to eight hours, on average.
A tornado warning issued by your local National Weather Service office means that a tornado has been spotted, either on Doppler radar or by professional weather spotters. Tornado warnings are issued for individual counties and last for 20 to 40 minutes. It means life-threatening weather is imminent, and if your county is listed, it’s time to take evasive action.
A tornado emergency is even more extreme. It means a confirmed large and violent tornado is on the ground and capable of significant damage and loss of life. Tornado emergencies are often issued when a large tornado is on the ground and pushing into a more heavily-populated suburban or urban area.
2). It’s a myth that tornadoes can’t hit cities!
It’s absolutely, unequivocally false that tornadoes avoid urban areas. Kansas City was almost hit by an EF-4 tornado the evening of May 28; the system weakened as it pushed into western suburbs. Major metropolitan areas have been struck repeatedly over the years (check out the remarkable list at Wikipedia), no city more than Oklahoma City, in the traditional heart of Tornado Alley. The perception is that somehow high-rise buildings will save me.
The reality is that a little concrete and asphalt won’t make a spit of difference to a supercell pulling in warmth and moisture from a 5- to 15-mile radius. Tornadoes can hit cities, cross rivers and lakes, even cross mountain ranges. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you are somehow immune from tornado damage.
Although rare west of the Rockies, every state in the nation has suffered tornadoes, even Alaska and Hawaii. And no country on Earth has more tornadoes than the United States — over 1,200 a year, on average.
3). Late-night tornadoes are disproportionately deadly
There’s a simple reason for this: People are asleep, not paying attention to the weather moving in. Although rare, when dynamics are present (strong wind shear, extreme instability and fronts nearby) tornadoes can form at any hour of the day … or night.
Some of the most recent tornado fatalities from Golden City, Mo., to El Reno, Okla., occurred after dark, when people often let their guard down. During a watch situation (even a severe thunderstorm watch) it’s a good idea to check weather on TV, radio, a favorite website or phone app. Nobody likes surprises, especially during the wee hours of the morning. The specter of hundreds injured because a tornado struck while people are sleeping is one of many things that keeps me up at night. But there don’t have to be unpleasant surprises.
During a recent interview, Dave Hubbard, chief operations officer of AerisWeather, highlighted a leading security company that uses severe weather alerts to notify customers of incoming severe weather, including tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.
“Having a security system that will watch over people when they are sleeping or relaxing without access to their phone or computers is crucial, and that’s what a security system with active weather alerts can do,” said Hubbard.
In a day and age when consumers are swimming in a world of free apps and weather websites, many companies still require personalized briefings and alerting for specific facilities, with company-specific standard operating procedures that leave nothing to the imagination.
4). You can’t always count on technology
The national network of 160 National Weather Service Doppler radars is truly amazing technology, able to detect wind direction inside the most intense spinning storms capable of spawning a tornado. But nothing is foolproof.
A few days before a major tornado outbreak we often know which states will be most vulnerable, but certain scenarios may only allow five to 15 minutes of lead time when it comes to warnings. The national average lead time is 13 minutes from when a warning is issued, and when the tornado hits.
The big tornadoes are relatively easy to detect, but small, brief tornadoes are often harder to detect and warn on. At the end of the day there is no substitute for common sense and personal responsibility. Every individual, family and company should have a tornado action plan.
At the end of the day you can’t count on government forecasters or your favorite meteorologist to save you. It comes down to personal responsibility, making a plan and paying attention on the handful of days every year when tornadoes are possible. Because at the end of the day the only person who is going to save you is … you.
5). Situational awareness is key
We’re all busy — all of us are perpetually distracted. Tornado weather can sneak up on us when we’re living our lives, running errands, focused on other things. But a quick check of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center website can tell you, at a glance, the magnitude of tornado risk for a given day.
Especially if there’s an enhanced, moderate or high risk, you need to go out of your way to pay attention later in the day. The most dangerous time is right before dinner, right after the high temperature for the day, when the atmosphere is most unstable — most primed for nature’s deadliest wind. Keep an eye on the sky and radar. This is one of my favorite sources of radar, a national mosaic of local NWS radars that animates, so you can see where the storms are moving.
I advise consumers and corporate clients to have multiple safety nets. Don’t rely on just one source, but have numerous, overlapping sources of severe weather information updating during the day. That means TV, radio, web and apps on smartphones. Don’t rely on sirens — they were designed for outdoor use only. Sirens were never meant to be a primary warning device for people indoors.
One of the cheapest forms of life insurance is a NOAA weather radio, which can sell for $25 to $75. It’s possible to enter just your county into the receiver, so you won’t be annoyed when warnings are issued for adjacent counties. But if a tornado warning is issued by your local National Weather Service for your county at 3 a.m. when you’re sound asleep, a shrill alarm will wake you up in time to get to the basement or comparable shelter.
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