Last week was Severe Weather Awareness Week in Tennessee. One day — Wednesday — was set aside specifically for tornadoes. How many media outlets put enough effort — or any effort at all — into providing coverage of the annual effort to educate the public on the dangers of severe weather? In cases where they did, how many residents actually paid attention?
No one could’ve known that one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in Tennessee’s history would occur less than a week later. That part was mere coincidence. But the bottom line is that weather experts used the symbolic week to warn us, “This could happen here,” and nobody listened.
Tennessee is hardly a tornado desert, especially west of the Cumberland Plateau, but Tennesseans tend to have a sense of false security when it comes to severe weather. When we think of tornado outbreaks in the South, we think of Mississippi and Alabama — not here.
That’s the attitude that the National Weather Service seeks to change during Severe Weather Awareness Week each year. One of the main themes during last week’s educational efforts was this: “Tornadoes can happen anywhere, at any time of the day or night.”
Unfortunately, we found that out last night.
The death toll is up to 16 in Putnam County alone. That will almost certainly go up as search-and-rescue efforts continue this afternoon. And it’s a number that’s almost certainly higher than it otherwise would’ve been because the tornado happened at night.
There’s nothing worse than a nocturnal tornado. Even when severe weather is expected — and it wasn’t really expected last night, although the National Weather Service had issued tornado watches and warned that conditions were favorable for tornadoes — a middle-of-the-night tornado always manages to catch its victims unaware. Many residents were awakened last night as the tornadic winds were violently ripping them from their beds. One of the most gripping stories being shared on social media this afternoon is of a Putnam County family that had moved into the hallway to take shelter from the storm. They awoke in the ditch outside their home. Their four-year-old daughter is still missing.
Few people think of early March as being a prime time for tornadoes in Tennessee; we aren’t yet into the peak of the spring severe weather season. But this is the deadliest severe weather outbreak in the Volunteer State since 2008 — and, ironically, that was also a Super Tuesday outbreak — so early-season severe weather outbreaks can and do occur.
There are those who are already criticizing the NWS for not doing enough to alert the public to the looming danger last night. But the NWS did its job. The agency’s meteorologists forecast in percentages. There was only a “slight” risk for tornadoes last night, and that’s what the NWS said. Truthfully, the tornado parameters just weren’t impressive last night — not for weak spin-ups like the one that touched down in Morgan County, and certainly not for violent, long-lived twisters like the one that affected Putnam County. But all it takes is a single, rogue supercell where all the parameters come together at the right time for a “slight risk” to become a “major risk,” and there is a path of destruction along the I-40 corridor all the way from Nashville to Cookeville to attest to that.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to not be trying to place our lives back together today, and who are only watching this from afar, let this be a lesson to us: When severe weather is in the forecast, pay attention. We’ve all sweated through the “high risk” days when severe weather was considered likely, only to see the forecast bust and no outbreak of severe weather occur. And we’ve all grumbled about the NWS and the media over-hyping the potential for tornadoes. This outbreak will certainly guarantee that other tornado threats as this spring progresses are over-hyped in Tennessee — at least by the news media — but is that necessarily a bad thing? Last night’s threat was under-hyped … and look what happened. Last week’s Severe Weather Awareness Week activities were given virtually no attention whatsoever … and could’ve perhaps saved lives.
So, if you live in Tennessee or anywhere else, this is a good time to review your severe weather plan as we head deeper into the spring season. Maybe last night’s events were a foreshadowing of things to come. Or maybe — hopefully — last night was the climax of the severe weather season, and it’ll be a quiet spring from here on out. Either way, we can never be too prepared when it comes to severe weather. Because, as Mother Nature showed us last night, she can throw a curve ball that catches everyone off-guard, and she doesn’t care to do it.
So what is your tornado plan? For starters, every home should have a NOAA weather radio — even in areas like East Tennessee, where tornadoes are relatively uncommon. You can find them on Amazon or in stores for as cheap as $30. Yes, this is the era of cell phones and warnings are delivered via cell phone, but many of us turn off our phones — or at least silence them — at night.
Next, educate yourself on the NWS’s watch and warning system. A tornado WATCH means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes, not that a tornado is necessarily going to occur. A tornado WARNING means that a tornado has actually been spotted on the ground or that radar has indicated rotation within the storm that could spawn a tornado at any moment. Sometimes, warnings are issued and expire without an actual tornado occurring, but a tornado should always be considered imminent while a warning is in effect.
Third, have a safe place in your home to move to if a tornado warning is issued or if you feel threatened by the weather (sometimes tornadoes can occur without a warning being issued by the NWS — and that was the case in parts of Middle Tennessee last night). If your home has a basement, that is the ideal place to be. Otherwise, move to a small, interior room (like a closet, a bathroom or a hallway) on the lowest level of your home — preferably one that does not have windows. Try to put as many walls between yourself and the tornado as possible. You can get under something sturdy — like a table — or cover yourself with a mattress to protect yourself from flying debris. Even covering yourself with a blanket will provide protection against the storm.
If you live in a mobile home, there is no room in your home that is a “safe place.” If you live in a mobile home community with a designated storm shelter, go there when severe weather warnings are issued. Otherwise, seek shelter in a basement or a sturdier building. If that isn’t an option, take shelter in the most interior room of your home — like the basement or a hallway.
If you’re outside your home and in a business, school or similar location, go to the designated storm shelter. There will likely be one that is designated. If there isn’t, go to an interior hallway on the lowest level, if possible. Avoid large rooms with expansive roofs — like school gymnasiums. These are the weakest parts of a structure and the most likely to have the roof collapse if a tornado occurs.
If you’re outside your home and in a car, do not seek shelter under a bridge or overpass; those structures do not provide protection against tornadoes. Wind speeds can actually be greater beneath an overpass due to the tunneling effect. Also, do not try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle. That only works in the movies. Get out of your vehicle and seek shelter inside a sturdy structure. If that is not possible, get to a low spot and cover your head to protect yourself from flying debris.
Fourth, develop an action plan and educate your children and others who live with you. Make sure they know what to do in the event of a tornado — especially one that occurs in the middle of the night; being awoken suddenly can cause chaos and cloud judgment. If your home has a designated safe room — such as a basement or lower-level closet — make sure everyone in your family knows where to go. If you live in a mobile home and have a designated safe area outside your home, such as a church or neighbor’s home, make sure your children know where to go in case you become separated. Make sure your family plan includes a re-unification plan in case you become separated during the storm. Do your children know who to contact if they can’t reach you? Where to go? Also, practice your plan by conducting family tornado drills.
Fifth, develop an emergency kit. In Putnam County today, officials are saying that they believe some residents may still be trapped in the basements of destroyed homes. It’s been more than 12 hours since the storm occurred. In the aftermath of a large-scale disaster, it can take up to several days for emergency workers to complete search-and-rescue efforts. So include in your kit enough non-perishable food and water to last up to three days. As for water, that’s one gallon per person per day. Also keep a battery-powered radio and NOAA Weather Radio, a flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit, a whistle to signal for help. If you have a baby in your home, include infant formula and diapers. If you have pets, include pet food. Also include any medications that you or anyone in your family, including your pets, may require.
If a tornado appears imminent, it’s time to put your plan into action. Don’t forget your pets! Prepare in advance by placing your dogs on leashes and your cats in carriers if severe weather seems possible. Move them into your designated safe room well in advance of the storm. Remember, you can reduce your pets’ stress by including items that are familiar to them, such as their favorite toys.
After a tornado has occurred and you’ve made sure that yourself and your family are okay, it’s important to know that as many as 50 percent of all tornado-related injuries occur after the storm. This can be due to venturing outside too quickly, being injured by debris (such as stepping on a nail), or being injured by an electrocution or explosion. If your home has been damaged, do not turn on the lights. If you’re able, immediately shut off the electricity and natural gas. Do not use a candle to inspect your home; instead, use a battery-powered lantern. If you smell natural gas or suspect a leak, get out of the home immediately.