Spring is prime time

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 15, 2001

for storms and tornadoes


Staff Writer

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Spring temperatures are a delight to many after the cold months of winter, but those warm temperatures can create devastating storms.

From March until May, warm air off the Gulf of Mexico moves inland, colliding with cooler temperatures. The result is the potential for deadly tornadoes.

The shift in weather patterns is what makes March, April and May the time when close to 75 percent of the state’s strongest tornadoes touch down, leaving debris and death in its wake. Tornadoes also occur in November and December when cooler air is invaded by warm, moist air.

A tornado is a violently Whirling column of air seen as a funnel-shaped cloud that usually destroys everything in its narrow path. They usually being as a funnel cloud and are accompanied by a loud roaring noise many describe as sounding like a freight train.

On average, Alabama has 22 tornadoes touch down each year. In 1998, 50 twisters hit Alabama and two were reported in 1950. Of all the tornadoes in the past 50 years, an average of seven people died.

Back in 1971, Pike County was hit by two storms in the same day.

Last year, 43 tornadoes occurred in Alabama, which is double the average. Of those storms, three occurred in the months of January and February, seven in March, 11 in April, seven in November in 12 in December.

It was on Palm Sunday 1994 that a tornado touched down in Alabama, killing 22 people ­ 20 of whom were at a Palm Sunday service in a church that was demolished by the storm.

Storms such as that killer storm are devastating to communities, but can serve as lessons to others who escape the danger. Those lessons come in the form of the need for better notification and preparedness.

A statewide weather radio network created in the 1970s sends storm warnings to most Alabamians, but many communities are installing outdoor warning sirens as an extra precaution.

In Pike County, sirens have been installed near the county schools and the city limits of Troy and Brundidge.

Although they do not substitute for listening to weather reports on the radio or television, the sirens can serve as a warning to those who might be outside and unaware of approaching danger. In the event of a tornado warning ­ when a tornado has actually been spotted ­ a three-minute-long siren will sound.

"The biggest thing to me is the warning," Pike County Emergency Management Agency Director Larry Davis. "You can’t react to anything without a warning."

At that time citizens should seek shelter immediately.

Most tornadoes occur in the afternoon between noon and 5 p.m., but no time of day is immune to the killers. With most people out and about during that time of day, it is even more important for people to have a plan in the event they are caught off guard.

Since most thunderstorms and, consequently, most tornadoes occur during the spring and develop rapidly, it is important to plan ahead in order to survive.

"Preparedness is the biggest thing," Davis said. "The only way to be prepared is to plan and practice. It’s kind of like playing football ­ you play like you practice."

Davis and Jane Thrash, community development specialist for the Pike County branch of the American Red Cross, urge families, hospitals, nursing homes, businesses, industries to follow schools by having tornado drills so everyone knows what to do in the event of severe weather.

Some basic preparedness plans include having a thorough knowledge of safety rules, select and designate an area for shelter, have a weather radio or other form of receiving reliable warning information, proper instructions for every person to follow when a watch or warning is issued and drill to test and practice the plan.

Here are some rules to follow.

· When a tornado watch is issued, listen to local weather updates and be alert to changing weather conditions.

· If a tornado watch is issued, go to a place, safe from glass and other flying objects, such as a basement, center hallway, closet or bathroom. Those outside should lie flat in a ditch or low-lying area. If driving a vehicle or in a mobile home, get out immediately and head for shelter.

With a large number of mobile home parks in Pike County, Davis and Thrash worry what will happen if a tornado does approach the area.

"Trailers are the most vulnerable," Davis said, adding the one destroyed in a December tornado on Needmore Road was hardly recognizable as a home after the storm.

Davis said it is also important, with baseball season in full swing, to be prepared if outside.

"If you can see or hear lightning, you’re in the danger zone," Davis said.

· After a tornado has passed, watch for fallen power lines and stay out of the damaged area, listen to the radio for information and instructions and use a flashlight to inspect the home for damage.

But, there are plenty of things to do long before the threat of bad weather approaches.

The American Red Cross recommends devising a safety plan and assembling a disaster supplies kit with first aid supplies and essential medications, battery powered radio, flashlight, extra batteries, canned food and can opener, bottled water, sturdy shoes and work gloves. It is also recommended to enclose instructions on how to turn off utilities.

Thrash and Davis are both more than willing to help anyone devise a safety plan.

"Plan where you’ll go and let family members know where you are so they won’t be looking for you," Thrash offered as another piece of advice.

Davis can be reached at 566-8272. Thrash can be reached at the Red Cross office, 566-0632 or at home, 735-2004.