|Neese reminds residents to be ‘tornado safe’
|Posted: Friday, April 13, 2012 12:00 pm
The cliché “what you don’t know could kill you” is often attributed to local television news promos. Now, one reporter has a new message: when it comes to tornado safety, what you think you know could be just as dangerous.
As the weatherman for Nashville’s News Channel 5, UT Martin alumnus Charlie Neese knows a lot more than most people do about tornadoes and how they form, but he has also made a special project of studying their destructive patterns like a forensics expert, especially in the wake of last spring’s record-setting outbreaks. One trend he’s noticed is despite being accompanied by more and better warnings, tornadoes are becoming increasingly fatal.
To Neese, that indicates his job reporting at the news station isn’t enough — even with warnings, “there is a disconnect between the warnings and the actions people are taking.”
To help reverse this trend, Neese is taking breaks from the studio to travel to communities across Tennessee and share what he’s learned about tornado safety from studying their trails of debris. In many cases, his information surprises the attendees of his educational presentation, called TornadoSafe.
“I did this presentation in Crossville about three weeks ago,” Neese said, “and about a third of the audience raised their hand at the end and said they were changing the place where they go during a tornado warning based on what they learned. So it turns out some people think they’re going to the right place in their home, and it’s really not the safest place.”
Locally, Neese’s TornadoSafe was sponsored by Alexander Auctions and Real Estate and was hosted by Central Baptist Church in Martin, where around 50 members of the community gathered Tuesday night for the presentation.
Neese began by playing a video montage of massive tornado destruction in America just over the last 18 months, including last year’s devastation in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and recent footage of tractor-trailers being blown into the sky in Dallas.
“We are in a cycle of more active tornados in our part of the country right now,” Neese said.
“We see as many tornados as they do in tornado alley now. We have more deaths in the Southeast because we have more nighttime tornados. There are more nighttime tornados in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world, and that kills a lot of people, because people will go to sleep, and next thing they know they’re literally flying through the air.”
Neese explained that our geographical position due north of the Gulf of Mexico means warm, moist air can generate violent storms without the aid of daytime heating.
After reminding the audience of the recent record of storms, which brought 24 tornados within 50 miles of Weakley County over the past 5 years alone, including an F-1 April 25, 2011, just north of Martin, Neese cautioned them about the relatively quiet season so far this year.
“Fortunately, all this warm weather we’ve been having,” Neese said, “shifted the tornado track way up north of us, and that kept us relatively calm. But we’re starting to see stronger cold fronts again. The pattern’s shifting back a little bit, and will be here for the rest of April off and on, and it’s likely to get a little stormier again as we go toward the next couple of weeks.”
Neese said the most important component of tornado safety was a reliable warning, but the effectiveness of warnings such as sirens and news broadcasts depended on people being alert for them during severe weather and heeding warnings quickly, despite sometimes having “false alarms.”
“The good news is that almost every tornado that touches down in the country has a tornado warning as or before it touches down,” Neese said. But, “you have to hear the warning.”
Neese recommended staying vigilant during severe weather and having a weather radio, WeatherCall, or a smartphone weather-warning app to alert you when you are sleeping.
Next, Neese identified places where attempting to ride out a tornado has statistically proven to be the most fatal.
Some danger areas, such as windows, seemed obvious but came with surprising findings. For instance, it turns out that a window is the first place most people go in a tornado warning.
Neese said that after the Tuscaloosa tornado, social scientists questioned residents as to why they did or did not take appropriate action.
“Most people heard the warnings, but they wanted what they call ‘secondary confirmation.’ So they waited. They were waiting to look out the window and see it coming. That pause, that amount of time between the warning and that secondary confirmation — that’s getting people hurt or killed.”
Neese showed videos from security cameras that demonstrated how quickly the windows blow out in a tornado, leaving no time at all to seek cover.
“This is why you can’t wait. Look at how fast it happens. Most people don’t realize how fast the impact is.”
Neese explained why the upper floors of buildings are also dangerous.
“Turns out the winds in a tornado get stronger as you go up in elevation, because the friction at the ground slows the wind. So you might have a 10 to 15 mph increase with every 15 to 20 feet of elevation, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but wind energy, with every mile per hour that it goes up, the energy, the force goes up exponentially.”
Proximity to a garage is a little-known hazard in a tornado.
“The larger the opening that wind can come in, typically the worse the damage is going to be in that part of the house, and garage doors fail easily,” Neese said.
He displayed many pictures that showed the garage-ends of houses collapsed or blown apart. He pointed especially to houses that shared one roofline with their garages. In such houses, winds entering through the garage lifted the roof of the entire structure, which destabilized the walls and caused a collapse.
Neese said garage doors on the south or west sides of a house are the most dangerous because the southwest corner bears the brunt of both the tornado’s rotational winds and the speed of a storm’s typical movement from southwest to northeast.
Neese also cautioned against thinking a crawl space is a good substitute for a basement shelter.
“Crawl spaces are very dangerous, especially in Tennessee, because of the way we build houses. In Tennessee, most of the foundations are made out of block. You’ve got a thin layer of mortar holding those blocks together. If you get a 100 to 200 mph wind, you start pushing against the house. The house wants to move. It’s looking for a weak spot, and what happens is the house will stay together, but where that concrete block is connected it will separate, and then the whole house moves as one unit. And if you’re underneath it, you could be crushed.”
This tornadic effect happened so frequently in Tennessee, Neese explained, that the National Weather Service coined the term “sliders” to describe it.
While houses are supposed to be permanent, movable shelters such as vehicles and mobile homes pose more dangers.
To demonstrate why you should exit your car or truck if caught on the road in a tornado, Neese played a hair-raising video of a family in Oklahoma who left their vehicle to brave a tornado in an open parking lot. While the family was not blown away by the wind, the force of the wind against the broad side of their sport utility vehicle moved it dozens of feet.
One common misconception, perpetrated by a famous 1991 video by storm chasers who were caught on a highway in a tornado, is that overpasses make a fine shelter. In a 1999 tornado that passed over Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City, some people were killed attempting to ride out the storm this way.
Neese explained that overpasses are dangerous because “you compress the air as you go underneath the overpass, and you actually increase the winds.”
After cautioning the audience about what not to do, Neese moved on to positive steps you can take to prepare for a tornado strike.
“So, where do you go? Under ground is best, period.” Neese noted that most deaths in tornados are caused by flying debris, and that going below ground gets you out of the path of that debris. “The very best place is tornado shelters built underground, away from the home, because then you don’t have anything to collapse down on you either,” he said.
Neese showed examples of underground shelters from concrete bunkers to partially buried metal shelters that double as front porches for mobile homes.
Then, Neese showed some of the relatively new metal and concrete above ground shelters, meant to shield occupants from wind and debris. These shelters come prebuilt, can be installed on any concrete floor, where they are bolted down every inch along each wall. They are rated up to F-4 in tornadic strength.
“The problem with these is, if you live near a road or near an interstate where you have large objects,” Neese cautioned, “if you get one of those at 200 mph hitting one of these things, I don’t know that they’re going to stay in place.”
Neese noted that do-it-yourselfers could find plans for a storm shelter on fema.gov.
In a house, Neese recommended ducking under a stairway for the best cover. “Stairs, because of the way they’re built, they provide extra structure.” That extra structure is key to defending against both flying debris and collapse.
Small rooms, such as closets and bathrooms provide protection for similar reasons, Neese said.
“They’re smaller rooms with shorter walls. Shorter walls stand up better in the high winds of a tornado. In the bathrooms, if you peel away the walls, you’ve got the pipes. The pipes add strength to the walls.”
If you live in a mobile home or the upper floors of an apartment building, Neese recommends you make friends with people who live where you are more likely to survive a tornado.
To stock your tornado shelter, Neese suggests common storm shelter items, such as a first aid kit, battery-operated radio and a flashlight. He also noted some more unexpected items, such as rations and water.
“If the big one comes, like in Joplin — city services were knocked out for days, not just where the tornado went.”
Neese also suggested work gloves for handling debris, blankets for warmth in the cold air that typically follows a storm, and a whistle to signal rescuers if you end up trapped under a collapsed structure.
Neese also said to bring a helmet. “Most injuries sustained in these tornados — the worst are the head injuries, because that’s generally the highest part of your body, so it’s the most susceptible to the debris.”
Finally, Neese advised the audience to register their storm shelters with local emergency services, so that rescuers would know where to search for survivors.
Neese will continue to take his TornadoSafe presentation on the road. He will return to the northwest Tennessee area to present TornadoSafe again on April 24 at the Long Heights Baptist Church in McKenzie. He also plans to deliver his presentation in Dyersburg during the month of May.