In this Wednesday mobile phone photo provided by Michelle Gilbert and seen from a bus traveling north-bound on Interstate Route 91, in Springfield, Mass., a funnel cloud touches the ground in Springfield, Mass. Residents of 19 communities in central and western Massachusetts woke to widespread damage Thursday, a day after late-afternoon tornadoes shocked emergency officials with their suddenness and violence and caused the state's first tornado-related deaths in 16 years. AP photo/Michelle Gilbert
High tornado, fire risks require readiness
By RACHEL COLEMAN
Natural disasters have hopped and skipped across Kansas this spring — and so far, Seward County has been unharmed. That’s good news, says Seward County Emergency Manager Greg Standard, but the safety enjoyed creates different risks.
“I think we all tend to forget sometimes that when tornado season comes, we should make sure we’re prepared,” he said. Since Kansans live with the yearly threat of tornados, it’s easy to become complacent: “Years go by, and a big tornado hasn’t happened here, like the ones in Greensburg or Joplin. The big thing is to decide today what you will do when a tornado happens.”
First, Standard said, it’s important to understand the tornado warning system, and be attuned to the signs of hazardous weather. The designation “tornado watch” is a weather-system term that simply means conditions are favorable for tornado formation; tornado watches often go hand-in-hand with severe thunderstorm warnings. When a “tornado warning” is issued, it means a funnel cloud has been sighted and is moving toward the area warned. That’s when Seward County’s sirens sound.
“If they hear sirens, people should immediately move to shelter,” Standard said, “and I should explain that the sirens are an outdoor warning device, not intended to alert people in their homes.”
Seward County usually conducts outdoor siren tests at 2 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month; this week, because the weather was already a bit stormy, the department chose to wait for a clear, sunny day when there would be no confusion about the test’s status.
“We didn’t want to scare the dickens out of folks,” Standard said. In general, when the sirens sound at 2 p.m., the emergency management department is performing a test.
Indoors, “the very best thing is to have a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio,” he said. The device will automatically sound an alert when severe weather warnings are issued. Weather radios are superior to television or radio stations, because “satellite TV won’t always broadcast local weather, and not all radio stations break away from syndicated programs,” he said. By contrast, a weather radio is dedicated solely to issuing safety messages.
“It will let you know you need to take shelter whether it’s one in the afternoon or one in the morning,” Standard said. Weather radios are available at large retailers and electronic stores, and Standard’s department is willing to provide follow-up in programming the devices to local alert stations.
“A lot of people come in to ask us for help, and we’re very glad to help them,” he said.
When a tornado is imminent, it’s important to seek shelter in a basement or sturdy, enclosed room near the center of a house; rooms with windows should be avoided, as should large buildings with big, flat rooftops. Standard mentioned that during the Joplin tornado, many people sought shelter in a large home-improvement store with a flat roof; it was a disastrous choice, he said.
“It was really devastating. If I’m out and around, and I hear the sirens, obviously the better-built a building appears, the more likely I’d choose it,” he said. “Banks tend to be well-built. If I know it has a basement, great. If it’s during the day, many public buildings are open.”
Places to avoid include trailer homes, buildings with lots of glass and windows, and really large buildings.
Standard recommended people in residential neighborhoods make advance preparations.
“The big thing is today, decide what you’re going to do when the warnings sound,” he said. “Talk to your neighbors, arrange to go where there’s a basement. People need to work these things out amongst themselves.”
Families should agree on a meeting place, he advised, “so that you know your kids are going two doors down, and no one has to waste time looking for family members. Go over it every year, and make sure you’re all familiar with the plan.”
Another important preparatory step is to have easy access to emergency supplies.
“You should have a place in the house where you keep flashlights, batteries, bottled water, shoes, jackets, extra stuff you can grab if you need to leave quickly,” he said. “When the weather service puts out a tornado watch, that’s not the time to think it through: you have about five, maybe ten minutes to get to safety.”
Standard’s department is on full alert year-round, ready to handle emergencies of all kinds. This time of year, however, presents a special challenge to residents of the area.
“After the big storm in Joplin, we’ve heard from a number of folks, people who’d moved from there or who had family in the storm. I think there’s some extra apprehension, which actually provides an opportunity to make people aware of what they can do to be ready,” he said. “It reminds us just how devastating those storms can be, and how important it is to think ahead.”
When a tornado warning is issued and a person is en route — perhaps on the highway or in a part of town where there are few inhabited buildings — what is the best course of action?
That depends, said Seward County Emergency Manager Greg Standard.
“In general, I’d recommend you drive away from the storm,” he said. “If you’re on the highway and you see a dark storm ahead of you and sunlight behind, turn around and go the other way.”
Even the fastest tornadic storms move at about 40 miles per hour, far slower than the speed limit.
In town, “it’s more problematic,” he said. “You want to find shelter, but if there is none, get out of the car and lie in a ditch. Ultimately, that’s better than being in a vehicle — but hopefully, you’d find some kind of building to stay in.”
As for overpasses, Standard said to pass them by.
“We don’t have a lot of them here anyway, but while they offer protection from hail, they’re not good for storms. The overpass actually tends to increase the wind speed,” he said. Also, “debris typically piles into the void spaces. It’s really not a good choice, and we encourage people to avoid them.”
Spring storms are not the only emergency threat for Southwest Kansans this spring, said Seward County Emergency Manager Greg Standard.
“People may not be aware of the danger we’re in,” he said. Along with the seasonal possibilities of severe storms and tornados, “the fire danger in Western Kansas is off the charts. If we had a big fire southwest of Liberal, with the wind blowing 60 miles an hour like it has been — that fire would go into the city and it would result in some real difficulties.”
Though burn bans and greater awareness can help lessen the possibilities of prairie fire, Standard said the best approach is to be ready to evacuate quickly.
“I’m a big proponent of the three-day supply rule,” he said. “It’s a great idea to have things on hand that you would need if there was a big fire or storm. Basic things like bottled water tend to evaporate off the store shelves pretty fast when there’s an emergency.”
Items every household should have ready to go:
n Clothing, “because it’s hard to have the sizes people need on hand,” Standard said.
n Medicine, especially prescriptions
n Bottled water
n Non-perishable food
n Cash; credit cards can’t always be used if phone and computer lines are down.
n Batteries for flashlights and radios
n Identification and important papers, such as insurance proof and policies and credit cards
n First-aid kit for minor injuries