Residents reminded to watch signs of tornados

This article submitted by Stephanie Everson on 04/22/97.

April is here, spring has begun, and as we watch the first sprouts of new plant life and budding trees, it's also time to keep our eyes and ears open for those first signs of tornadoes. April 21 to 25 is designated as Tornado Awareness Week, and on Thursday, April 24, two tornado drills will take place throughout the state of Minnesota. The siren will sound in the city of Paynesville at 1:45 p.m. and 6:55 p.m. to allow at least two shifts of area businesses to participate.

Rising technology, as well as recent Hollywood films have renewed interest in these devastating and potentially deadly storms. Many people aren't just crawling into storm cellars anymore, but instead, are actually chasing these storms that at one time chased them. As technology increases, people are no longer accepting their all too common role as victims, and are doing everything in their power to find more effective methods of predicting these violent forms of nature, to the point of putting their own lives in danger.

The word tornado is derived from the Latin word "tonare" which means to turn. A tornado can be only a few meters wide to a kilometer wide where it touches the ground. Most tornadoes spin counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. Tornadoes usually strike in warm climates; in the United States they most often strike in early spring. Because of the climate factor, Texas suffers the most tornadoes in the U.S., while Alaska gets the least.

No one knows exactly how a tornado forms, but the funnels are always formed when there are violent motions in the atmosphere, such as strong updrafts and the passage of weather fronts, developing in low-pressure areas where there are high winds. Funnel winds often turn at more than 300 miles per hour, although speeds of more than 500 miles per hour have been estimated for particularly strong storms. When a funnel is visible, it's not the wind that is seen, but rather, the dust that is sucked into it as well as condensed water droplets in the center of the funnel. Tornadoes not only cause damage to property by the high winds, but also by the extremely reduced air pressure at the center of the funnel, which can often cause a building to explode.

In the last century, we've been able to rely on radar to detect and track a severe storm; before that, people had nothing more than their own keen senses to keep themselves and their families safe. Although our current weather tracking radar system is more accurate in predicting storms than the smell in the air or an aching joint, it's still not fast enough to save the many lives that are lost every year due to tornadoes.

Minnesota ranks 18th in the United States for tornadoes and fatalities, recording an average of 832 tornadoes and 87 lost lives because of them.

Poor predictions can cause two problems, people ignoring the tornado warning altogether, and wasted time spent in a shelter due to a false alarm. Two reasons tornadoes are so hard to predict are because severe thunderstorms that should produce tornadoes sometimes don't, while small storms that shouldn't produce them, do.

The only way to develop better prediction methods is to get near the funnel and be in the right place at the right time with sensors and radios, and enough people to work the long hours. The people who do this line of work for a living are called "storm chasers." The most recent information on tornadoes has come from VORTEX, the world's largest storm chasing project. VORTEX has found that some tornadoes form much more quickly than previously thought, in five to 10 minutes, not 20 to 30 minutes as was believed. That is a serious difference for the tornado warning system, since a warning cannot be issued to the public until the storm has already begun to form. It is also detrimental because smaller tornadoes are sometimes not detected on current meteorological equipment.

The most important way to keep safe from a tornado is to know what to do when one strikes. Even though tornadoes most often occur during early spring, according to the National Weather Service, they can strike anytime, if the weather conditions are right. If a tornado watch is issued, it means the right weather conditions exist which could cause a tornado. When a warning is issued, a tornado has been spotted in your area. Go immediately to safety.

If a tornado warning has been issued:
1. Go to the basement, cellar, or lowest level of a building. If this isn't possible, take shelter in a steel or concrete framed building.
2. Stay away from windows.
3. Go to the center of the room, because corners attract debris. Get under a piece of sturdy furniture and cover your head and neck with your arms. If possible, cover yourself with a blanket.
4. If in a mobile home, leave it and seek shelter elsewhere; the National Weather Service estimates that 40 percent of tornado-related deaths occur in mobile homes.
5. Never stay in a large gymnasium or auditorium; go to a small room, such as a bathroom or closet, or a hallway.
6. If caught outside, don't remain in your car. Lie flat in a ditch or other low ground, avoiding trees, electrical wire, and metal.

Designate a storm shelter and stock it with the following disaster supplies:
1. flashlight and extra batteries
2. portable, battery operated radio with weather band and extra batteries
3. first aid kit and manual
4. emergency food and water
5. nonelectric can opener
6. essential medicines
7. cash and credit cards
8. sturdy shoes and work gloves

While storm chasers put their lives on the line in the effort to save lives by understanding these furies of nature, we can do our part by being prepared.

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