Fear the funnel -- be prepared for tornadoes

Friday, March 16, 2012

They can throw cars like softballs, pull trees out of the ground, mow down a street full of buildings and they sound like a southbound train. Fear the funnel.

Tornadoes are a violently spinning column of air descending from a thunderstorm overhead down to the ground. They can cause wide swaths of destruction because their winds can rotate up to 250 miles per hour. For reference, the winds of Hurricane Katrina reportedly blew at about 175 mph with gusts up to 200 mph. The tornado that blew through Joplin, Missouri, last May had sustained winds of 200 mph.

A tornado that hit Broken Bow, Okla., carried a motel sign 30 miles across the border into western Arkansas. A tornado picked up a hardware store in the north part of Shreveport, Louisiana, and scattered tools across the northern part of the state into southern Arkansas. The countless stories about the might and awesome destructive power of tornadoes command our attention and remind us to plan now, not when the radio issues the next tornado watch for our area.


Tornadoes have been reported in every state, in valleys and up the side of 10,000 foot peaks, in humid Southern counties and arid west Texas plains. Tornadoes are equal opportunity offenders. Usually they occur mid-afternoon through early evening like the 2011 Joplin tornado. Most are fairly narrow at the base, but others, like the one that destroyed the town of Denning, Arkansas, in May of last year, leave a path of destruction a mile wide. Also, the Denning tornado hit just after midnight.

Tornadoes spawn when unstable, warm moist air confronts a dry cold front. The warm air rushes upward forming thunderclouds with winds swirling at various levels. Think of the word maelstrom.

A typical tornado breeding ground would be the plains of Oklahoma where a southern warm front and colder, dry air from the west converge. The air flows mix and spin out of control. Thunderstorms with possibly large hail and fierce winds are created and they charge across the land and often several tornadoes are born out of the mayhem.

March through mid-June is considered the time for tornadoes in the South, and the peak time in the North is more during the summer. May and June are statistically the months with the most tornadoes. April is the cruelest month with the most casualties. However, this year there were several tornadoes in late February that caused havoc through southern Missouri into western Illinois, so no season is immune.

Typically, tornadoes move southwest to northeast like the recent Joplin and Branson tornadoes, but they are fickle and will veer in any direction.

How to prepare

Northwest Arkansas experiences either tornadoes or near misses often enough for all of us to take the threat seriously and take precautions. Some folks believe that areas near lakes or rivers are safer, but statistics show that no terrain is automatically immune, so take nothing for granted.

Families should develop plans for what to do during a tornado whether they are together at home or separated at work and school. Know the school's emergency plan and discuss how you will get back together. Have a way to make contact but avoid phone use as much as possible because the emergency people need the lines at emergency times.

Have a radio with plenty of batteries. Authorities suggest having a NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) radio which has a warning alarm. Any radio will work if you know where to tune it for emergency information.

In California earthquake country, it is common for families to have a Go Bag complete with disaster supplies ready to grab and go at a moment's notice. Tornadoes usually allow some warning time, but it's still a good idea to have a bag of supplies prepared if the big one hits and you don't have power but need a bandage and a drink of water. Or food.

Your emergency plan will depend on where you live. If you live in a mobile home, identify the nearest sturdy building where you may escape to in an emergency. If you live in a typical one-story home, identify your safe place, which should be toward the strongest interior wall and away from windows. Bathrooms with no windows, or interior hallways, are good. Businesses should have this conversation also.

If you have a basement, congratulations! Clean it up and get it ready because that is the place where all experts say you should go. In a two-story or higher building, go to a safe place on the bottom floor.

It is a myth that houses explode from the pressure difference created by the swirling of the tornado, and therefore it is a not a good idea to open windows to equalize the pressure. Houses are destroyed by the incredible force of the winds and by objects as big as houses blown by the winds.

It is not advisable to try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle unless you know exactly where the road ahead leads and what you will do when you get somewhere. Although tornadoes usually move at an unrelenting but measured pace, they have been known to travel as fast as 70 mph overland and change directions mercurially. If your path and that of the tornado intersect, it might pick up your vehicle and kick it like a hacky sack.

Although it might seem like a safe place at the time, tornado experts warn against hiding in a car. It is one of the most at risk places to be! Believe it or not, they recommend leaving the vehicle to fend for itself and finding a low-lying spot on the ground to hide in unless, of course, that spot is already full of tornado experts. Lie low in a spot not subject to flooding and protect your head and neck. If you are a praying person, that would be the time.

Danger signs

Weather alerts will provide tornado watches or warnings and they are very accurate. If your area is under a warning, grab your Go Bag and settle down in your safe place. Sometimes the weather conditions will be so variable and confused, you won't be able to see the funnel cloud.

Nevertheless, keep watch for very dark or greenish sky. You might also see a wall cloud, which is a dense vertical cloud formation extending below the level of the rain clouds.

Hail often accompanies the thunderstorms which spawn tornadoes, and if you can see clouds of debris nearby and hear the sound of a locomotive, hang on to something with one arm and protect yourself with the other.


Continue listening to radio reports about the weather situation. Power might be down and roads blocked. The grocery store might or might not be open for business. Are you prepared? Where will you get water? How good are your shoes for this situation?

What about neighbors? You must watch for downed power lines and gas leaks, but you might be able to help neighbors who need it. Don't put yourself in danger by going into damaged buildings and don't go where you will be in the way of professionals, but everyone can contribute in some way. If you don't know first aid, you can help someone who does.


There are excellent sources online with plenty of tips on preparing for emergencies like a tornado, but it is really very simple and everyone within the wide reach of the Lovely County Citizen should make the preparations necessary to take care of yourself and your family in case of a tornado. Not only is "despair the off-spring of ill-preparedness" but granola bars are cheaper by the carton. Be prepared.

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