Storm spotter training part of awareness week

3/3/2014

By KELTON BROOKS

By KELTON BROOKS

kbrooks@gctelegram.com

Destructive tornadoes, rising flood waters and lightning strikes all have the potential to be deadly.

But identifying the warning signs, understanding the dangers and knowing when to take shelter may just help you safely ride out the storm.

That was part of the message Jeff Hutton, warning coordination specialist for the National Weather Service in Dodge City, shared at the annual spotter training session Monday at the Finney County Fairgrounds. The session was held in conjunction with Severe Weather Awareness Week.

"Communication is the key to public safety. Even if there is not a warning, if you see something that's hazardous heading towards your location, don't wait for a warning. If you feel threatened, take shelter," Hutton said.

Hutton emphasized what to look for, how to identify it, and how to stay safe by being in the best position during a storm.

"My preference is to get under stairs to help protect from falling debris, or a basement. If you don't have a basement — in most cases — you're going to be able to survive if you get into an interior room, like a bathroom or a closet," Hutton said.

The average number of tornado-related deaths per year nationally is 91. In 2013, there were 899 reported tornadoes nationally. Fifty-five were killed in 2013 by tornados, and 34 of those deaths were in El Reno, Okla.

Hutton said the tornado there may have been an EF5 and was 2.6 miles wide — but that tornado was a rare occasion.

EF stands for the Enhanced Fujita scale. It measures a tornado's intensity based on the degree of damage caused by wind speeds, rather than the size or shape of the storm. In Kansas, tornados typically range from EF0 to EF2. EF0 tornadoes have wind speeds up to about 85 mph, which could take some shingles off a house, break some tree branches and take out windows.

"EF1 tornadoes have wind speeds up to 110 mph, and that's enough to move a vehicle," Hutton said. "An EF2 tornado has wind speeds up to 135 mph, and that's capable of tossing vehicles, taking all the branches off a tree, taking most of the roof off and causing significant structural damage," Hutton said.

The higher rated tornadoes, EF3, have wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph; EF4 tornadoes have wind speeds of 166 to 200 mph; and EF5s have wind speeds greater than 200 mph.

EF5 tornadoes are considered the most violent and can cause enough damage to disintegrate vehicles and completely demolish a home.

Hutton suggested making sure to put on shoes during a storm or tornado to avoid stepping on nails, splinters and debris that have fallen. If you're caught outside during a tornado, don't hide under an overpass. Wind speeds increase under an overpass.

"It might protect you from baseball-sized hail, but under an overpass is the absolute worst place to be during a tornado," Hutton said.

Floods killed 85 people in 2013. Hutton said if you see high water crossing the road, don't enter, because there is a high probability of losing your life. Such water is often deeper and more dangerous than it looks. It actually does not take much water flowing over a roadway before a car loses traction and can get carried away in a flood.

As for lightning, 26 were killed in 2013 by that, and 234 were injured. There weren't any cases of lightning deaths and injuries in Kansas in 2013, but in 2012, there was one death and two injuries.

"If you're hearing thunder, there is lightning. And if there is lightning, you're in a dangerous location, and you could get struck. That's the time when you want to get inside a home or a vehicle quick," he said.

Hair standing up may be an indication of lightning about to strike.

"It could be on your head, arms, your back, your neck. If you're around a radio, it may start to hum or crackle. All of those signals indicate a lightning strike. For spotters, if you see something occurring, let us know, let emergency management know, and law enforcement. Passing the information on is what can save a life," he said.

Michael A. Paz-Torres, Finney County emergency management coordinator, said trained storm spotters contact the Finney County Emergency Management office to keep the staff aware of weather changes.

"We rely on spotters. The session brings awareness of what people need to look for, and gives them knowledge to make informed decisions when they see something out there," Paz-Torres said. He also added that if a warning or a watch is issued, then he gets in contact with the weather service and monitors different radar sources, as well as television.

Paz-Torres also said a statewide tornado safety drill will take place at 1:30 p.m. today. He recommends every school, citizen and business participate in the drill by practicing safety procedures such as seeking shelter and gathering supplies as if this were a real warning.

He also said from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, the Finney County Emergency Management team will be stationed at the electronic department at Walmart to assist people with programming their weather radios.

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