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Paramedic's Corner: Tornadoes and why people die from them
Paramedic's Corner: Tornadoes and why people die from them

Gary Carmack
In 1974, a total of 330 people died and another 5,484 people were injured during what would later be called the deadliest tornado outbreak in America’s history. On April 3 and 4, 148 tornadoes went through 13 states. More recently, 16 Missourians died in 2008 from tornadoes on May 10 and 11.

Why do these deaths and injuries from tornadoes happen?

The warning systems in 1974 were nothing like today. Meteorologists had to depend on old World War II-type radar systems intended to spot airplanes, not twisting deadly wind. Tracking the tornado had to be done by hand; there were no satellite-computer models so prevalent today. Communications were slow too; even if a tornado was spotted it was a very slow process to get the warnings out in time. It is safe to conclude the heavy death toll in 1974 was a result of primitive warning system or sometimes no warning systems were available at all.

Let’s jump ahead to May 2008. Readers may remember over Mother’s Day weekend last year, on May 10, a tornado touched down and destroyed properties in a 20-mile-path across Jasper, Newton and Barry counties. Two hundred people were injured and 16 people died. Warning systems are the best they have ever been, yet those people still died. In this modern era, the communication age, why did these Missourians die?

To answer these questions requires a discussion about warnings and seeking shelter. These are the two important issues of this article.

March is Disaster Preparedness Month and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), the National Weather Service (NWS), and local emergency management officials have set the March 2009 Severe Weather Campaign to focus on three themes during the month: Tornado Safety March 9-13, The Turn Around, Don’t Drown safe driving March 16-20, and Purchasing Flood Insurance set for March 23-27. This column will cover tornado safety this week and the Turn Around, Don’t Drown next week.

The first warning method I want to discuss with the readers is the NOAA Weather Radio. This is the strongest recommendation as far as warnings: the NOAA Weather Radio, with batteries is, in my opinion, the very best warning model available.

The NOAA Emergency Radio issued a tornado warning for the Willow Springs area as I started working on this article Saturday morning. All morning I had been monitoring the Weather Channel, NOAA Weather Radio, and my usual ambulance business radio traffic in case I would need to have an “all call-in” of the ambulance district personnel. There had been tornado warnings that morning in Laclede, Phelps, Howell, Carter, Shannon, Texas and other counties. It is important to note that a warning means a tornado has been spotted and people in that area should seek shelter immediately.

That morning I knew of each watch and warning very early. I would get the warning on NOAA radio, and at the same time on the weather channel. Therefore, my recommendation and hope would be that every family had a NOAA Emergency Radio with plenty of batteries in case the electric goes out. The weather channel and other electronic methods radio/TV are great, but dependant on electricity unless you have a back up battery system. The great thing about the NOAA Emergency Radio is it wakes you up. Mine started waking me in the early morning hours with various watches and warnings about the state. The NOAA Weather radio is, in my opinion, just as important to save lives from severe weather as smoke alarms are important in saving lives from fires. No home should be without both.

The next system people like to discuss is the warning sirens. These sirens are good for those outdoors. The storm sirens in Waynesville and Fort Leonard Wood are usually tested the second Wednesday of the month. However, due to this Tuesday, March 10, being the statewide tornado drill, Waynesville will do tests at the same time. The drill is set for 1:30 p.m. statewide. In case of bad weather, which as if it might occur, the statewide tornado back-up drill will be Thursday, March 12, at 1:30 p.m.

In seeking shelter, the most salient point here is “to have a plan,” because during the emergency is not the time. Minutes, and even seconds may count in saving you or those you love from serious injury or death. If a residential basement is not available, know your local storm shelter and as soon as a warning is issued, get to the shelter.

Let’s return to May 2008 to consider why people died. Most of them died in vehicles, and one person was killed in a mobile home when a tree fell on it. One person got in a car beside the road seeking shelter. One family was driving to a family wedding and all were killed in the vehicle. Two of the worst places a person could be during a tornado are a vehicle or a mobile home.

Please remember the following: A tornado watch means watch the sky. A tornado warning means seek shelter immediately.

If in a vehicle or in a mobile home, get out immediately and seek shelter. If no shelter is available, or if you get caught out in the open, look for a ditch or a low-lying area. Cover your head with your arms, a pillow, coat, blanket, or anything to protect you from flying debris. Flying debris is the number one mechanism for death from a tornado.

If in a house, school, or business, seek shelter in basements if available. If there is no basement, go to the lowest level and go to interior parts of the building. Stay away from windows. Use hallways or staircases. It is important to have a method to account for everyone in the home, class, or office.

To conclude and keep it simple, to survive a tornado:

1. Make a plan and practice that plan.

2. Have a warning system. I strongly recommend NOAA Weather Radio.

3. Know how and where to seek shelter.

4. Respond to the shelter immediately if a warning is issued for your town.

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