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By Devese “Dee” Ursery
Spring is fast approaching and that comes with long sunny days and warmer weather, but that also brings severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Preparedness and situational awareness, on top of tornado safety, is key to survival if adverse weather occurs.
Alex Elmore, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in St. Louis said that for the most part, people associate spring with thunderstorms and severe weather. He said that much of the United States, including southwestern Illinois, experienced peak activity for tornadoes during this time.
“These tornadoes can occur at any time of the day, though they most commonly occur during the late afternoon and evening,” Elmore said. “They can cross bodies of water and move across varying landscapes with ease.”
According to the NWS, when a tornado threatens you may have only seconds to save yourself and your family. A preparedness plan is necessary for homes, schools, workplace and anywhere groups of people gather.
“Just as people should have a shelter place when they are at home, they should have one when they are at work,” Elmore said. “They should check to see if their workplace has an onsite shelter, basement, or windowless interior room on the lowest level of the building.”
Elmore said that the NWS has been very busy posting information about tornado safety and how to prepare for all types of severe weather, including tornadoes on their social media platforms. He said the week of March 6-10 was Severe Weather Preparedness week for both Illinois and Missouri.
According to the NWS website, the best shelters are in a substantial building away from windows and doors. If you don’t have a basement, get to the lowest floor in a small, interior room such as a closet, hallway or a bathroom without windows.
It is also stated that if caught outside, get in your car, buckle up and drive to the closest sturdy shelter. You should never look for shelter under a bridge and only lie flat in a ditch as a last resort. If you live in a mobile home you should seek out a storm shelter.
Elmore said that tornado season peaks in southwestern Illinois during the months of March, April and May. He also said that they can happen at any time throughout the year in southwestern Illinois and through the lower Midwest.
In a typical year, Illinois averages 50 tornadoes. In 2022 there were 50 tornadoes reported in Illinois resulting in three fatalities, 17 injuries and more than $12 million in damages, according to the NWS.
Thunderstorms develop when warm, moist air collides with cold dry air. Those thunderstorms often produce hail, strong winds and tornadoes as the warmer air rises through the cold air causing an updraft. A tornado is a violent rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. Damage from a tornado is the direct result of high wind speeds and wind-blown debris.
Elmore also explained the difference between a tornado watch and tornado warning. He said that meteorologists issue tornado warnings when conditions in the sky are ideal for tornadoes to form over the next several hours.
A tornado warning is issued when NWS meteorologists determine that a storm is strong enough to produce a tornado, or when a tornado has been spotted or picked up on radar.
Elmore said that taking action when a tornado is bearing down upon you is too late. He said one must take action ahead of time and have multiple ways of receiving weather alerts. He said they need to check the forecast often and have a plan for seeking suitable shelter when at home, work, or other locations when a tornado warning is issued.
“All tornado warnings should be taken seriously and those under a tornado warning should seek shelter immediately,” Elmore said.
Chief John Baiot for the Collinsville Fire Department said that situational awareness and being informed of weather conditions and how quickly it can change is paramount.
“Being aware of weather conditions and that the conditions are there for a tornado to form should be your first warning,” Bailot said.
Baillot said people should have multiple ways to get severe weather information. He said setting up a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather radio in your home and signing up for your city’s mass notification for severe weather are good starts.
“Have a family plan and practice the plan”, Bailot said. “Identify the safe area in your plan and make sure everyone in the family or work environment knows the plan.”