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Tornado drill aims beyond mere test

Peak tornado season is only a few weeks away, experts say.
Monday, March 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:18 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

This is a test.

Those familiar words — along with the shriek of ear-piercing sirens — will ring out statewide Tuesday as part of Severe Weather Week, an exercise that aims to prepare Missourians for the start of tornado season, along with flash floods and other emergency situations.

Although the mid-Missouri winter has been relatively mild, spring is likely to yield another season of the tornadoes and floods more typical of Midwest weather, experts predict.

March is considered a transitional period to the peak tornado season in April and May. As Emergency Preparedness Month, March offers a good opportunity for families, schools and businesses to prepare for severe weather conditions, said Susie Stonner, a spokeswoman for State Emergency Management Agency.

As winter moves into spring, the jet streams begin heading south. Contrasting warm air masses from the south collide with cold and dry air masses in the north, creating a perfect formation for severe weather in the Midwest, said meteorologist Steve Thomas of the National Weather Service.

With a statewide average of 28 tornadoes and three deaths annually, the Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management is encouraging local residents to take part in a drill set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday and prepare a plan for severe weather situations.

“Unfortunately weather kills — it happens every year,” said Jim Kramper, a warning coordinator with the National Weather Service.

“If people pay attention and follow common safety rules, they can protect themselves,” he said. “The goal is to make people aware of situations, know how to get information and know what to do if they are threatened. It must become instinct.”

In recent years, the total number of tornadoes in Missouri has risen. Last year, for instance, 69 twisters touched down, killing seven people. In 2003, a state record of 84 tornadoes was recorded, killing 19 people.

Meteorologists said the increase is probably due to more sightings reported and better communication, not changes in weather patterns.

Regardless of tornado frequency, area residents should devise an action plan and prepare a three-day survival pack of food and supplies for their homes in the event that help is not readily available after a disaster, said James McNabb, director of the Columbia/Boone County Office of Emergency Management.

There are several “golden rules” to follow when a tornado is sighted, McNabb said.

When a warning is issued — meaning a tornado has been sighted in Columbia or Boone County — people in the affected area should seek cover immediately in the lowest level of a building or the innermost room with no expansive ceiling and no exposed glass.

Hallways, bathrooms or basements usually meet this need. If you are driving during a tornado, it is important to seek cover in any nearby sturdy building or underground shelter, rather than try to drive out of the storm. If none are available, lie in a ditch or the nearest low spot.

Overpasses are not considered a good source of shelter because their structure might create a dangerous wind tunnel.

The local emergency management office regularly tests tornado notification systems the first Wednesday of every month via outdoor warning sirens. Tuesday’s statewide drill will be issued by the National Weather Service.

“If people are aware we are doing this drill and they hear the outdoor sirens, they will not call 911 and ask what’s happening,” Stonner said. “It’s a way to work with schoolchildren, and businesses need to account for everyone. The drill takes 10 minutes max to do. Hear it and go seek shelter — in less time than a coffee break it gets you thinking.”


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