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How to Be a Better Bystander: Severe Weather Edition

Some friendly advice for before, during and after the storm.

Tornado season has jumped the gun this year, again.

2011 was one of the worst seasons on record. One night last April yielded an unheard of 54 confirmed twisters in the southeast, many of which happened here in Georgia. Some of those storms rated EF-3 and a few, such as the one that struck Ringgold up near the Tennessee line, were in the EF-4 range, with winds as high as 170 MPH. Storms in Missouri and Alabama rated a rare EF-5, with winds over 200 MPH. Even Lowell, Mass. saw a tornado last year. New England twisters are about as common as blizzards in Florida.

Our area was spared that night by an unusual parting of the cells. The system basically split into two, wreaking havoc to our north and south but missing us by a berth of 25 miles, give or take. We got lucky. 

Tornados are no joke. I have had a variety of experiences with them. As an infant, I'm told I survived one in Omaha, Neb. that killed our next door neighbor and tore the roofs of most of the houses on the block. Waaaaaaay back in 1993, I was a rookie volunteer firefighter when downtown Monroe took a direct hit. It wasn't even a full-blown tornado. They called it a downburst, but it sure looked like a tornado to me. Last summer I spent a terrifying couple of minutes cowering in a bathroom with 20 other people at a rest stop in Eastern Arkansas, helping to hold the door shut as what turned out to be an EF-0 blew over. Sure didn't feel like an EF-nuthin'. Best I can describe the feeling is that it's what I imagine being inside a vacuum cleaner.

So I thought I knew a little something about bad storms, until I set foot in Joplin, Mo. last June. A 6-mile long, mile wide swath of pure destruction. I've been told the only reason it was listed as an EF-5 was because there's no such thing as an EF-6. Well over 150 people died in that storm. Nearly 500 were killed nationwide last year.

I don't think it's just being paranoid to suggest that this year looks to be just as serious. The frequency of tornado-capable storms is not new around here, but the intensity of them is. Midwest storms can be true monsters, because the geography is more favorable to them...flat, wide open, not many trees. There's nothing out there to break up the storm, make it "jump" over a ridge-line or hillsides, so they tend to grow very very large and stay on the ground over longer distances. Georgia storms are generally rain wrapped, small and short lived events. Typically, they break up before they reach the wind-speeds and gerth of their cousins on the plains. What we generally get around here is EF-nuthins or 1's, with winds in the 45-117 MPH range. An occasional  EF-2 or 3 with gusts up to 165 MPH is not common. Usually.

Last year, a number of storms reached the EF-3 and 4 range. That's wind up to 200 MPH. Already this year, Georgia has had a couple EF-2's in February.
A system with a potential of what the Weather service is calling "a potentially significant outbreak" is barrelling towards us. Never mind the milk and bread jokes...The time to prepare is now. Right now.

The key to storm safety is to be prepared and be alert. It's wise to monitor the weather, via TV, radio, Internet. Have a planned "safe place." A basement or cellar is ideal, but if you don't have one then us an interior hallway or room with no windows. Use pillows or a mattress to shield yourselves. Make sure everyone in your family knows where the "safe place" is, and pre-store a couple flashlights with extra batteries there. If you live in a trailer or modular home, an alternate place of safety is preferable.

If a tornado is imminent, don't try to record it for Youtube. Get to your safe place, stay there until the storm has passed. Once the storm is over, account for all of your family members. Call for help if you need it, but need help if you call. Bear in mind that emergency services will be inundated with calls for help. Unless you need medical help, someone is trapped or there is a hazard or fire, consider refraining from calling 911 just to request somebody come take a report. This helps keep the lines open for true emergencies.  It may prove difficult to reach those in hard hit areas. Stay away from downed power lines, but if you are able you can help by turning gas meters off to damaged homes, and clearing trees from the roadways.

Be a better bystander this tornado season. It may well be a rough spring, but you can handle it as long as you prepare, remain calm and know what to do in the event of severe weather.

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