Saturday storms reinforce need for tornado preparedness

Monday, April 16, 2012

If Saturday's storms didn't get your attention, they should have.

The National Weather Service took the unusual step of warning of a possible "high-end, life-threatening event" more than 24 hours before it developed, and forecasters were right.

At least five people were killed, but it's probable that many lives were saved because of the early warning, as more than 95 tornadoes were reported from Oklahoma through Kansas, Nebraska and southern Iowa on Saturday.

McCook residents who get their NBC television news from Wichita, Kansas, saw first-hand reports on tornado damage to that city, including an Air Force base and a couple of aerospace factories.

The five people were killed in Woodward, Oklahoma, where 30 also were injured as a tornado ripped through the northwest side of the city, destroying or damaging dozens of homes.

Large hail was reported in Nebraska in towns like Spalding, Petersburg, Ringgold, Stapleton, North Platte and Nebraska City, and Greensburg, Kansas, still rebuilding from a devastating tornado May 4, 2007, received tennis ball-sized hail.

The Norfolk, Nebraska, hospital was forced to move its emergency department to new quarters when enough hail fell to creat three-foot drifts and water flooded the hospital.

Weather service personnel face a dilemma -- they must issue watches and warnings when appropriate, but they risk public complacency if they "cry wolf" too often.

The Woodward, Oklahoma, struck before tornado sirens could sound; they were knocked out of service by a lightning strike.

Emergency managers remind the public, however, that tornado sirens are intended only as an outdoor warning device; upon hearing them sound, we should head inside and turn on the radio to find out what the emergency actually is.

Our own eyes and ears are among the best early warning device.

Thing to watch for:

* A sickly greenish or greenish black color to the sky.

* If there is a watch or warning posted, then the fall of hail should be considered as a real danger sign. Hail can be common in some areas, however, and usually has no tornadic activity along with it.

* A strange quiet that occurs within or shortly after the thunderstorm.

* Clouds moving by very fast, especially in a rotating pattern or converging toward one area of the sky.

* A sound a little like a waterfall or rushing air at first, but turning into a roar as it comes closer. The sound of a tornado has been likened to that of both railroad trains and jets.

* Debris dropping from the sky.

* An obvious "funnel-shaped" cloud that is rotating, or debris such as branches or leaves being pulled upwards, even if no funnel cloud is visible.

If a tornado is imminent, head toward a purpose-built tornado shelter, a small room in a basement or a central room on a ground floor, if there is no basement. Abandon mobile homes and get to a solid shelter, and make yourself as small a target as possible.

Most importantly, keep an eye on the weather and be ready to act if threatening weather occurs.

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