‘Tis the season…for tornadoes

Growing up in Iowa, I have been through my fair share of tornadoes. It’s a scary experience, especially when it catches you off-guard.  And even  though we have the most sophisticated equipment in weather history, tornadoes can appear in the blink of an eye and change your life forever.

Photo of a tornado that hit Charles City, Iowa May 15, 1968. Photo borrowed from the NOAA's website.

Photo of a tornado that hit Charles City, Iowa, May 15, 1968. Photo borrowed from the NOAA’s website.

Years ago, we didn’t have the elaborate warning system we have now. We had to rely on our three local TV stations, and our common sense.

If it’s extremely humid and the clouds have a funny green tinge to them, be prepared to move to the basement.  (I have seen tornadoes occur without those elements, but not often.)

 I was 5 years-old when I experienced a tornado for the first time (that I actually remember). I was playing in the front yard with my brother. It was unusually hot for May and the air was heavy. The sirens went off suddenly and my sister, who was babysitting, called for us to come in. She wasted no time in leading us downstairs.

While we were safe in our basement under some blankets,with the flashlight and transistor radio by our side, she explained how powerful tornadoes are and the damage they cause. The storm was over in less than an hour, but I had gotten my first lesson in tornado safety.

The damage  from the storm was minor in Cedar Rapids, but those who lived in the communities north of us were not so lucky.

The NOAA reports that, “During the late afternoon and early evening of May 15, 1968, five tornadoes (two F1s, one F2, and two F5s) occurred in Iowa.  These tornadoes were part of the May 15-16, 1968 outbreak (39 tornadoes) which affected ten states.  In Iowa, the tornadoes caused 18 fatalities and 619 injuries.  Since this outbreak, no other tornadoes have produced this many deaths or injuries in Iowa.  There have only been two other F5 or EF5 tornadoes in Iowa since 1968 (Jordan – June 13, 1976, and Parkersburg – May 25, 2008).  [The picture above was taken by the Floyd County sheriff (L. L. Lane) at his spotter position on Highway 14.  It shows the tornado when it was 2 miles southwest of Charles City.]”

Tornadoes have hit various communities in Iowa, including Parkersburg, Iowa City, and Washington, but we have been extremely lucky here in Cedar Rapids. The storm that moved through Iowa Sunday night was just a precursor of what to expect during this tornado season. It varies from year to year so it’s still too soon to predict what kind of year we will have for tornadoes.

I was living in a mobile home in 1998 when we experienced an active year for tornadoes.  Every Sunday, it seemed, a watch or warning was issued for our county, making it almost impossible to plan any outside activities.

The mobile home park had a shelter that we sometimes used, but it was more than a block away so we usually just waited until we heard the sirens to use it.

One Sunday after we had gone to bed, the sirens went off. I looked at the clock on my nightstand. It read 3:00. I threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and went to every child’s room to wake them up. “Leave your pajamas on,” I told them and ushered them out the door.  

There were others already at the shelter and we made small talk about the weather. Someone had a radio and we listened to the weather announcements until the warning expired. Nothing materialized that night, thank goodness, but it was a good reminder that we are helpless when it comes to the weather, and we have to be ready for anything.

Tornadoes threatened so often that year that I finally decided to stay at my parent’s house when bad weather was forecasted. They had a nice basement with a bedroom, and I felt more secure and I could sleep much easier.

When you live in the Midwest, you get used to the idea of tornadoes. You hope you never have to deal with them, but chances are, you will.

The tornado that hit Moore, Okla.  and the tornadoes in Texas earlier this month are reminders that tornadoes can devastate a community in just a few minutes, leaving destruction in its path. We have no control of where it goes or what it does, but we do have control of how we handle the situation.

Tornadoes need to be respected but you can’t spend your life being afraid of them. Knowing where to go, what to do if there is no shelter, and how to defend yourself against flying debris are just a few things you can learn to control the situation and feel safer.

 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website is a great resource to learn more about how you can be prepared for inclement weather.

 Here are a few myths and facts from their website:

 “Tornadoes may occur in the middle of the night and even during the winter.”

FACT: Although the likelihood is lower at night and during colder months, tornadoes have caused death and destruction during these times of day and year. Violent tornadoes, while very unlikely during the winter months, do occasionally occur at night. When severe weather is forecast, ensure your NOAA weather radio is on and working properly before you go to bed.

“A tornado is not coming directly at me, I am safe.”

MYTH: tornadoes have been known to act erratically, often changing directions quickly. Sturdy shelter is the only safe place to be during a tornado. Although it may be tempting to follow a tornado to get a cool photo, please leave the tornado chasing to trained meteorologists.

“Hiding under a freeway overpass will protect me from a tornado.”

MYTH: While the concrete and re-bar in the bridge may offer some protection against flying debris, the overpass also acts as a wind tunnel and may actually serve to collect debris. When you abandon your vehicle at the overpass and climb up the sides, you are doing two things that are hazardous. First, you are blocking the roadway with your vehicle. When the tornado turns all the parked vehicles into a mangled, twisted ball and wedges them under the overpass, how will emergency vehicles get through? Second, the winds in a tornado tend to be faster with height. By climbing up off the ground, you place yourself in even greater danger from the tornado and flying debris. When coupled with the accelerated winds due to the wind tunnel (Venturi Effect), these winds can easily exceed 300 mph. Unfortunately, at least three people hiding under underpasses during tornadoes have already been killed, and dozens have been injured by flying debris. If you realize you won’t be able to outrun an approaching tornado, you are much safer to abandon your vehicle, and take shelter in a road-side ditch or other low spot (see Tornado Safety). For more information on the use of highway overpasses for shelter, please see this NWS discussion on highway overpasses. Note: If a highway overpass is your only shelter option, only consider it if the overpass has sturdy roadway supports, next to which (at ground level) you can take shelter. Avoid the smooth concrete, support-less spans at all costs.

“I can outrun a tornado, especially in a vehicle.”

MYTH: Tornadoes can move at up to 70 mph or more and shift directions erratically and without warning. It is unwise to try to out-race a tornado. It is better to abandon your vehicle and seek shelter immediately.

“While there is no such thing as a category 6 hurricane (the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale only goes to category 5), there can be an F6 tornado.”

FACT: The Fujita Tornado Damage Intensity Scale actually goes up to F12! The F12 level only begins at wind speeds exceeding Mach 1.0 (or around 738 mph at -3°C), so the probability of a tornado having winds of this speed is infinitesimally small. Could a tornado be an F6? Yes, however, the Fujita scale is based on wind speeds that are estimated from the damage the tornado produced (because no one has been able to stick an anemometer into a tornado to measure the actual wind speeds). Since the winds of an F5 tornado (up to 319 mph) are sufficient to completely destroy just about everything in its path, an F6 really wouldn’t do much more damage than that, and therefore could not be definitively labeled as an F6. When accurate measurements of wind speed inside an extreme tornado are eventually obtained, it is not impossible that they may exceed 319 mph.

More myths and facts, as well as information about tornado preparation, safety and the difference between watches and warnings, can be found on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

Phil sees his shadow–an early spring?

February 2 just so happens to coincide with a major snowstorm in the midwest this year, so it’s funny to think that “the Seer of Seers,”  Punxsutawney Phil, would not see his shadow, indicating an early spring.  But I would think that seeing the sun would actually mean an early spring.

As a child I questioned how this groundhog could possibly know if it would be an early spring, but I always went along with the fun in trying to predict it myself.  Will he or won’t he? 

We were always hoping for the latter, to think that after many long, cold months of snow and ice, spring will come sooner than expected.  We would be able to shed the heavy winter coats and venture outdoors in search of warm sunshine.

 But the magic of Groundhog Day has seemed to vanish from my logical adult mind. The thought of an early spring is nice, but I have seen snow as late as May (anything is possible in Iowa). I no longer hold my breath for March 20 because it is not a good indicator that spring is really here.

Curious about the history of Groundhog Day, I came upon some interesting facts, finding out how the tradition of Candlemas Day, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, found its way to America to form a holiday all its own…Groundhog Day.

According to stormfax.com,  “If the weather was fair, the second half of Winter would be stormy and cold.  For the early Christians in Europe, it was the custom on Candlemas Day for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people in the dark of Winter.  A lighted candle was placed in each window of the home.  The day’s weather continued to be important.  If the sun came out February 2, halfway between Winter and Spring, it meant six more weeks of wintry weather.”

As for the Groundhog Day itself, “Pennsylvania’s official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2nd, 1886 with a proclamation in The Punxsutawney Spirit by the newspaper’s editor, Clymer Freas: ‘Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow.’  The groundhog was given the name ‘Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary’ and his hometown thus called the ‘Weather Capital of the World.’  His debut performance: no shadow – early Spring.  The legendary first trip to Gobbler’s Knob was made the following year.” (Stromfax.com)

And yeah, it was a great movie, too.