By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
In Oklahoma, Missouri, and other states in the heart of Tornado Alley, tornadoes are a regular seasonal occurrence. They appear quickly, wreak havoc and then disappear from the weather map. Northeast Ohio is on the far northeastern leg of Tornado Alley where tornadoes are less frequent, but they still happen and cause damage. They are unpredictable and difficult to warn of with precision. They can develop in minutes, creating 250 mile per hour winds driving a swath of destruction a mile wide and 50 miles long.
The difficulty of tornado warning has made tornado awareness a top priority for many of the nation’s Emergency Management Agency directors. Lessons learned from major tornado disasters teach us plenty about how to prepare to survive a tornado and its aftermath.
“Tornadoes can develop quickly so we’re learning about better notification technology,” said Ashtabula County EMA Director George Sabo. “For example the Conneaut tornado of 2010 hit six minutes before the NWS (National Weather Service) could get the warning out.”
Although FEMA declared the Conneaut and Andover tornadoes of 2010 to only have caused minor damage, it could have been worse. Andover Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Vickery said his property was hit during the tornado. It happened at night.
“It went right over the top of my house,” Vickery said. “All ten of my trees were ripped out of the ground. I was lucky. Some neighbors lost their roofs.”
George Sabo said many of the currently used Early Warning Systems are not enough to get the word out to people in affected areas on time. He said the Ashtabula County EMA learned that better weather notification is provided by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Alert Radios.
“Whenever there’s a warning or watch, they send out a tone alert, then tell what it is,” he said.
Sabo said NOAA Weather Alert Radios are available at many electronics stores for between $10 and $100.
‘People hear an alert, then a watch and then a warning,” he said. “These represent different degrees of danger.”
When there’s a tornado watch, people should get ready to get to some kind of shelter. By the time a warning is issued it could be too late. According to the Ohio Committee for Severe Weather Awareness, people in tornado weather should think of the word ‘DUCK’ to remember what to do in an emergency. The letter ‘d’ stands for go down to the lowest level or basement of the building, the letter ‘u’ stands for get under something to protect from debris. The letter ‘c’ stands for cover your head, and the letter ‘k’ stands for keep sheltered until the event is over. The OCSWA web page (at Ohio.gov) also noted that tornadoes are sometimes accompanied by large hailstorms, and that this weather sign should alert people to potential danger.
Sabo said that Ashtabula County’s EMA learned some new things and confirmed other things at a national EMA video chat symposium with the Missouri EMA Director. Joplin, Missouri was hard hit by tornadoes in May of 2011. The area was struck by an EF5 multiple-vortex cyclone, the most damaging degree of severity. It caused at least 158 deaths, 1,100 serious injuries and 2.8 billion dollars in damage. Missouri is still recovering from the event almost two years later.
“The Missouri director noted that warning sirens and other outdoor warning devices have serious limitations,” Sabo said. “But we learned that from the Andover tornadoes of 2010. It was late at night and people could not hear the sirens over the noise of high winds.”
Adding to that, many people could not hear the warning because their air conditioning units were louder than the sirens.
“We’ve learned that better notification systems are needed,” he said. “People need to get inside and get ready when they are warned.”
The aftermath of tornadoes also teaches lessons in how homeowners can protect their life’s investments after the damage is done. The OCSWA web page advises homeowners to videotape or photograph their homes and possessions and inventory before weather emergencies. After a disaster they should videotape or photograph the damage. This will make insurance claims go more smoothly, and repairs can begin sooner and losses reimbursed more quickly. The OCSWA web site offers many more tips on tornado preparedness.
Sabo also learned of nature’s unpredictability and the need for better notification at an NRC National Emergency Planning Conference. Ashtabula County’s EMA is part of a Nuclear Planning Zone because of its proximity to Perry, Ohio’s nuclear power plant.
“We learned that the radioactive plume during Fukushima went the opposite way from the direction planners had prepared for,” he said. “We learned that real preparedness must include any contingency of the weather. We’re now implementing things we’ve learned from all previous disasters.”