People may be used to thinking of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in spring and summer, but it’s the cooler months of the year that pack a bigger punch.
“Since 2000, we’ve actually had more cool season tornadoes in Kentucky than we’ve had in the traditional warm season,” said Joe Sullivan, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Louisville office.
Sullivan was part of KET’s Severe Weather: Staying Safe call-in program, which aired Feb. 13. The program was hosted by Chris Allen, weather director for WBKO-TV in Bowling Green.
The weather has been mild this winter, and the country as a whole has had adequate or better rainfall. “It’s the first time in over five years that we haven’t had severe drought somewhere in the United States,” Sullivan said.
It may be only a matter of time before the clash of warm and cold fronts creates a severe weather event, however. Weather forecasters focus their efforts on awareness, urging people to monitor storms in advance so that they don’t have to make a last-minute effort to find shelter.
Over time, greater awareness has saved lives. For example, in the 1940s, 300 people per year in the United States were killed by lightning. Now it is around 30 per year, Sullivan said.
State government is the largest employer in the state, with employees in every county. The state has an adverse weather leave policy, according to Greg Ladd, Kentucky state safety coordinator with the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet. Employees consult with their supervisor and, in preparation for inclement weather, make decisions on travel safety. If they miss work, they are allowed to make it up later, Ladd said. The state also sends out adverse weather emails to employees to create awareness.
Allen said Kentucky ranks third in nation for nocturnal tornadoes. Sullivan said storms during the shorter daylight of winter, are responsible for that ranking. The February 2008 tornadoes, he said, were all in the dark.
Jennifer Rukavina, meteorologist with WPSD Local 6 in Paducah, said forecasting in Western Kentucky can be tricky, because storms often develop quickly as they are moving over that area. “Sometimes it’s communicating to the viewer that this is guidance, but this scenario is not going to be certain until it actually develops, and the models can catch on to it,” she said.
Allen agreed. “And then that becomes more of going from a forecasting situation to a ‘nowcasting,’ ” he said, making people aware of potentially dangerous weather.
“And you can’t start that once you hear the tornado sirens or the weather radio goes off,” Sullivan said. “You have to pay attention as the day goes on, and even days in advance.”
The panelists agree that the basic rule of thumb for sheltering in a tornado is to get to an interior room on the lowest floor, trying to put as many walls between you and the outdoors as you can. “That being said, mobile homes are not safe places to be in a tornado,” Sullivan said.
Research has shown that an 85 mph wind will destroy a tied-down mobile home. “Which is why we suggest people find a nearby shelter,” Sullivan said.
Trailer parks are not required by law to have tornado shelters. Wayne Burd, assistant director of operations for Kentucky Emergency Management, said he has seen communities that have been hard hit by storms get grant money to build strong shelters. But the key point, he said, is that people have to stay aware of weather and have a plan.
The panelists advise paying attention to storms in neighboring counties, and if you live in a mobile home, give yourself 30-45 minutes to find shelter.
Most people who are injured or killed by a tornado are hit by falling or flying debris, Sullivan said. If your only indoor shelter is a hallway, crouch next to the wall and cover your head. You can even buy an old bicycle helmet and use that as protection from head injuries, he said.
If you should be caught unaware in a field when a tornado is approaching and there is no sturdy shelter, lie flat in a low-lying ditch. “The key is to get lower than the ground surrounding you,” Allen said.
In a position like that, Sullivan said, you’ve really ignored all the warning signs, such as the sky changing and lightning strikes. “You don’t ever want to put yourself in that situation. You want to be paying attention ahead of time.”
Rukavina said people should have a severe weather plan for their household and practice carrying it out, just as schools do. “It cuts down on chaos with kids at home,” she said.
Kentucky’s tornado safety drill is scheduled Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 10:07 ET, 9:07 CT. “That’s a great day to practice your plan,” Sullivan said.
Allen said most of the tornadoes in Kentucky don’t look like the funnels people might expect. “Most of the tornados we have in Kentucky are going to be wrapped in rain,” he said.
Sullivan said it’s hard to get a good video of a Kentucky tornado because many times people can’t see the tornado. “What a lot of people forget is the tornado is not the cloud you’re looking at. A tornado is a violently rotating column of air, and air is invisible. And we do have tornadoes that you can’t see when they hit.”
Floods and flash floods are actually a much higher risk in Kentucky than any other type of severe weather, Sullivan said. The state’s 30-year average for flood deaths is double that of tornado deaths. “And most of those are preventable because most of those occur in automobiles, and people drive to their deaths,” he said.
The mountains of Eastern Kentucky are particularly vulnerable to flash flooding from runoff, Allen said. Rukavina said research shows flash flooding from downpours has increased in that region.
Burd said people don’t realize that floodwaters can sweep their vehicle away. People often drive around barricades, not realizing the road itself may be washed out. “What people don’t understand, they think the roadway is still there,” he said. “Flash floods can wash out the roadway so that it isn’t there anymore.”
Sullivan said he believes drivers should lose points on their license if they drive around barricades, and they should have to pay for the cost of their rescue.
“So many people are in a rush. … A lot of people put that ahead of their safety,” said Rukavina.
What should be in your emergency preparedness kit, and how many days’ worth of rations should you have?
Burd said emergency officials recommend a weather radio and at least five days of food and water. He noted that the remnants of Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused power outages in Louisville that lasted more than seven days.
Allen said he tells people to power up devices like smart phones so if power goes out, they have access to information. Rukavina encourages people to have multiple ways to get warnings, and especially to have a backup warning system to awaken them at night.
Sirens placed in public parks and other outdoor locations are designed to warn people who are outside, not people who are inside. Allen said a weather radio is your own indoor warning siren.