Tornadoes: Safety is all about attitude.

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Do you hear that loud, repeated smashing sound coming from the general direction of the Upper Midwest and Plains? That’s us. Here in Minnesota, we have been breaking high temperature records left and right. Most of the TV weather reporters are wearing slings, eye patches, and bandages around their heads, it’s been so intense. And, on Monday night, we had the second earliest tornado recorded in the state. It was a baby; it messed up some trees and damaged some sheds down in Elysian, in farm country.

I remember taking a stroll a few years back with a distant relative in the Ozarks, Arkansas, and we talked by a house with a strange looking hatch thingie next to it. He pointed to it and said “Looky thare, those folks gots themselves a Fraidy Hole.”1 A “Fraidy Hole” is a place where you go if you are ‘fraid of tornadoes.

That was in about 2003 or 4. In the previous 5 years, something like 225 people had been killed in the US by tornadoes, and although some of them had happened in Arkansas, he felt the need to impress on me that anyone who was concerned with tornadoes was being silly.

I remembered, then, a conversation with a friend of mine a few years earlier. He was living in Connecticut at the time, but grew up in Wisconsin and went to college in Minnesota. His attitude was that going to the basement during a tornado was senseless. I don’t remember his reasoning. There aren’t very many tornado deaths in Connecticut, so he’ll probably never have that reasoning challenged directly by experience.

During the five years subsequent to that stroll in the Ozarks, the total number of tornado deaths in the US was about 350, and that sum has been mostly climbing ever since, staying above 600 since 2007, and peaking at 823 (over five years). In other words, the number of deaths via tornado has shifted from a “couple hundred” to “several hundred” during a period of time when most heavily settled areas have long had pretty good warning systems in place, and even more remote and rural areas now have good radio, TV, and local siren systems operating. This is because there are more tornadoes, and perhaps there are more severe ones as well.

It is the change in warning systems, by the way, that as caused the overall drop in tornado deaths over the last several decades (despite this recent upward trend). A great example of this occurred a few weeks ago when a tornado swarm struck several states, then two days later, it happened again. I had a relative lose a house from that second swarm, but no one was hurt. In one instance, a school with quite a few people (maybe a thousand? several hundred?) was evacuated, owing to the warning, and the building was then totally destroyed by a tornado. Had there been no warning system, that event would have resulted in several hundred dead, as the school building was totally destroyed.

The point is this: There may or may not have been a time when people would be fine with an attitude that brushed off tornadoes as a threat, or more significantly, caused them to casually ignore tornado warnings. But, it may be the case that we are going through a period of increased tornado activity, and this may be a good time to rethink that attitude.

I’m concerned that there may also be a trend towards under-expecting storms. I don’t want to second-guess the scientific models people are using to predict the weather, but I have as sense that a) temperatures are often warmer, in the Spring and early Summer, than the meteorologists tell us, where I live; b) Severe storms pop up fairly often with warning at the time they occur, but without severe weather being predicted for that day; and c) The occasional surprise tornado seems to pop up.

Monday’s storm is an example of this. The probability of a severe storm in the region was predicted as low right through noon time, but in the early evening we ended up with a very large storm that was technically severe (though it wasn’t too bad). The severe storm warning emerged less than 10 minutes before the storm arrived. Usually this happens earlier. The tornado that occurred in the southern part of the state occur ed where there was no tornado watch box of which I am aware. Mostly, modern meteorology does a good job of predicting storms, and I’m not suggesting otherwise here. What I am suggesting as a possibility is this: If there is a trend towards more severe weather happening, it is possible that models will somewhat underestimate events.

OK, so now that your attitude is adjusted, let’s see what you can do about it.

The first thing you need to do is to get a weather radio. I wrote a post on this earlier. As I say there, I ended up witha Midland HH54VP2. It is portable. I got this one because I can easily drop it in the bag of stuff we bring up to the Cabin, so I have it there. The Cabin is north of most tornado activity, but we are not that far past Wadena, and Wadena did get badly damaged not too far back. Thus the portable model.

(Do you have a weather radio? Do you suggest a certain model?)

You might also locate your local police scanner on the internet for when you have an event occur close by and would like more information.

Get more information about tornadoes here. Don’t have a bad attitude about getting into the basement or climbing into the tub, and consider renaming your “Fraidy Hole” to something else. (Any suggestions?)

1 Ridiculous accent added fore effect. My distant relative, who was an inlaw and is now an ex-inlaw (and no, that does not make him a cousin even by Arkansas rules) was actually born in New Jersey and thus, for some reason, has a light Texas accent, probably because of his politics.

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11 thoughts on “Tornadoes: Safety is all about attitude.

  1. I might even suggest 2 weather radios one that is plugged in and on all the time to catch most warnings and a hand cranked one such as the Eaton Microlink 150 for use if the electric power fails (also has am and fm as well so it provides an alternative means of info if there is a power failure, although a car radio does that as well)

  2. Yep, some people cannot or will not recognize the power of tornados. I grew up in South Dakota, and we spent lots of time in the basement when the sirens went off. I have seen lots of careless behavior, like a Duluth city bus going over the Blatnik bridge while the tornado sirens were sounding. Fortunately, no tornado materialized and no one was hurt. And now, I’m looking to move to Illinois. And what do I find in house-hunting? Most houses have no basements! I might as well be in a mobile home!

  3. Lyle, that’s a good idea. The portable I have is plugged in all the time because it has a cradle. The configuration of your living space also matters; if your house is big or you carry out a lot of activities away from the radio (in a shop or something) a second radio is a good idea.

  4. Warnings are good, an automatic weather radio is a fine investment. Getting some warning ahead of time is vital but if you have nowhere to run to you are screwed. You can’t reliably outrun or out think a tornado.

    Basements are good protection but something as simple and easy to build as a slit trench is also good protection. In some ways better than a basement because there is no house on top to dig through to get out.

    Figure a classic army specification of a ditch two feet wide, three feet deep, and as long as needed given 30″ per person. Given the narrowness of the trench there is no great need for any overhead cover as wind, even a tornado, just blows over. This is an afternoon’s work with a shovel. You can work up from a simple trench by reinforcing the walls with boards so the dirt doesn’t slump into it in time and adding duckboards to keep you above any mud. A cover to keep the wain out will keep maintenance to minimum. In time you can expand it to a regular root cellar, an underground cabin, and get as hobbit-like as you care to.

    Dig it one afternoon and clean it up every spring and you will have a place to go if/when you ever need it. All you need to start is a shovel and a willingness to sweat.

    Alternatively, for the folks with heavy equipment, even a small backhoe could knock one out in a few minutes.

    There is no reason for anyone to not have shelter.

  5. Even in a 2 story house when the siren on the plugged in radio goes off you can year it. Then either I turn on the nearby radio or go to the net to find out what is happening. (Where I live the radio covers about 5 counties so when storms are happening the siren goes off a lot)

  6. “Why isn’t there a phone ap for that?”

    Well, if your phone is “smart,” you have a choice of weather apps that warn of tornados, flash floods, and other severe weather, with a very alarming screech.

    Having been hit by the unexpected Minneapolis/St. Paul & Suburbs tornado in 1981, when the sirens went off 20 minutes after impact, we tend to keep several types of weather radios on hand.

  7. Greg, we think of it as the Lake Harriet tornado, but I found a site that says “folks on the east side of the Twin Cities call it the ‘Har Mar Tornado’ while others west of the Mississippi tend to prefer ‘Lake Harriet’ or ‘Edina Tornado.'” We heard that the people over in the northeast suburbs did get some warning, but all we had was the ominous rumble and the electricity going on and off in time with the lightning flashes. We running to the basement with our 14-day-old baby when the trees went down outside the door. Our trees absorbed much of the force of the tornado, and the house wasn’t too badly damaged, but it was still a terrifying experience.

  8. That’s the one. Before my time here, but I bought a house on property hit by that one .. Took down many trees and topped others on that one acre lot.

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