The City Beat went a-storm chasin’ the other day and had little luck seeing a tornado or even a blasted funnel cloud. I wasn’t the one driving, which was both a curse and a blessing; a curse because I couldn’t follow follow the route that I wanted to follow, which I thought would get me closer to the action; a blessing because I had no idea of the signs of impending danger and could’ve done something very stupid.
Since we’ll likely get more tornadoes this season, I figured I’d better bone up on storm chasing safety, which is as good a topic for the blog as anything.
One of the things that confused me Friday was the tornado siren and what it really signaled. The impression I had on Friday was that it meant you had to go in the basement to hide right away. One of my friends said an extremely obnoxious and overbearing co-worker, misunderstanding the drill, actually threatened to carry him into the basement.
Actually, the siren doesn’t mean that at all. Here’s what it says on the city Web site:
There are 4 reasons the sirens may be sounded aside from practice drills:
A tornado warning has been issued in Grand Forks (or the surrounding area) by the National Weather Service.
A funnel cloud has been spotted near the city of Grand Forks.
A "wall cloud", which can produce a tornado, is near or moving toward Grand Forks.
Straight-line winds have been clocked in excess of 58 mph in the Grand Forks area.
The sirens that sound are the same – there is not a different sounding siren for different warnings. When the sirens sound, they are for real emergencies – and they are designed to warn people who are outdoors to seek immediate shelter. They are NOT designed to warn people who are indoors.
There are always going to be those crazy people — like me — who insist on witnessing as much of the meterological drama as possible before taking shelter. For those people and for would-be stormchasers, here’s some tips:
- As many have heard, a green sky can indicate an impending tornado, though, contrary to folk wisdom, it doesn’t automatically mean there will be a tornado. It just means there’s a hell of a lot of water droplets in the air and the setting sun is shining through them. Red and blue makes green. By "green," what’s meant is a greenish tinge, not leaf green. When I was out Friday, I noticed that the sky and clouds northwest of town was greenish in this sense though the usual blue-grey was still dominant.
- When a tornado is getting close to you, it’s probably going to be pretty obvious.
The ones accompanied by crazy rain are usually surrounded by something called a "bear cage," which is an area of really crazy rain and/or hail that makes it impossible to even see a tornado inside [See the diagram in the middle of this page.].
The ones not accompanied by crazy rain are still going to be surrounded by wall clouds, dark, scary-looking mothers like the clouds I saw on Friday. You’ll see rotation in those clouds, too.
The National Weather Service lists these warning signs:
Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel! [See this picture.]
Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
Day or night – Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder.
Night – Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
Night – Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
Obviously, you want to stay away from the path the wall clouds are taking:
How can you tell if you’re in the path? If the tornado is not evidently moving to your right or left, but is simply getting larger and closer, then you’re in the path. This is not a good place to be. Of course, even seeing a tornado is not like going out for a Sunday afternoon picnic and it is even harder to find oneself in the path, but if you should do so, then do us all a favor and get out of there, ASAP!
- Have some source of information about where the funnel clouds and/or tornadoes are forming and where they’re going so you can get closer, but not so close as to get yourself in trouble. We were calling back to the office and listening to KNOX on Friday.
- If you’re driving around, the biggest threat is apparently getting yourself killed because of the slick roads, according to this storm chasing Web site:
The greatest dangers to storm chasers are not tornadoes, but instead, traffic crashes and lightning. Driving in heavy rain, high wind, dust and/or hail is obviously dangerous, even to the experienced chaser. The only known death of a chaser during an intercept happened in 1985, when an OU student slid off a wet road while trying to avoid a large animal. Even the most careful and conscientious driver may have problems under severe weather conditions — such as misjudging distance or hydroplaning. The solution should be obvious: Slow down on wet roads, watch for obstacles, animals and other vehicles in unusual and unsafe places; and drive very slowly whan making turns on wet surfaces. Given the hazards — and the proliferation of inexperienced and reckless drivers around storms, it may be a matter of great fortune that more deaths haven’t happened from vehicle wrecks. Lightning is especially insidious because you may never see or hear the bolt which kills you. Even when it doesn’t kill, lightning can cause ugly and horrifying aftereffects which may linger for a lifetime and cause permanent disability. Several chasers have been struck by lightning; fortunately, none have died yet. Numerous others have had terrifyingly close calls. Simply being around a thunderstorm implies a heightened lightning danger, as Gene Moore, Chuck Robertson and others discovered on one infamous chase. But good lightning safety practices minimize the threat — namely, staying inside the closed vehicle whenever possible, and when outside, avoiding being the highest target and touching metal wiring.
Also, car-flipping winds, car-crumpling wildlife, head-shattering hail and flash flooding are also dangers, says the Web site. This is why you should pair up so one of you can keep his or her eyes on the road. You should probably stick to paved roads because heavy rain can do crazy things to country roads.
- Don’t be a yahoo. Rules of traffic and courtesy still apply during a big storm. Also, if you endanger yourself and others, you create more work and risk for rescue crews.
There’s a ton of good safety tips from this Web site, which I quote above.
The National Weather Service has a good tornado FAQ, as well.