Be prepared as tornado season looms

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published March 8, 2017

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METRO DETROIT — While tornado season doesn’t usually get off the ground until April, unstable weather has already been spotted this year and more could be on the way.

Experts say it’s never too late to start thinking about an emergency preparedness plan and what you should do should a tornado strike.

Debra Elliott, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake, said that metro Detroit from Bay and Huron counties down to the Ohio border can expect about six tornadoes per season, with the season running from late April through August, with the heaviest concentration in spring during the transition season from winter to summer. The entire state sees about 16 tornadoes per year, compared with the rest of the United States, where there is an average of 1,200 twisters annually.

“We have had a tornado occur in every month except January, and there have been some that have occurred during the late night and early morning,” said Elliott, who notes that prime time for tornadoes is 2-10 p.m.

The American Red Cross recommends that you listen to local news or radio during any storm to be informed about watches or warnings posted in the area. A tornado watch means that tornadoes are possible in and near the area, while a tornado warning means that a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar.

In Oakland County, the county’s Homeland Security Division tries to educate residents early through spotter training classes given throughout the area beginning March 1 and running through April 12. Tornado danger signs include dark, greenish clouds; a cloud of debris; large hail; a funnel cloud; and a roaring noise. 

Oakland County Homeland Security also works closely with local schools during Severe Weather Awareness Week April 16-22 to get students prepared for what to do in a severe weather situation. 

“We have our special tornado siren that we’ll be doing in conjunction with schools to test the system out that week, on Wednesday, April 19, at 1 p.m.,” said Theodore Quisenberry, manager of Oakland County Homeland Security. “They’re required by law to conduct so many different drills per year. We try to encourage the schools to use that day.”

It’s important for residents to be prepared for severe weather as well, he said. 

“It’s all year long we do drills. We encourage businesses all year to have a plan,” he said. 

The county offers brochures online and at local schools, libraries and municipal buildings that spell out what should be in a disaster kit — including water, medication, a flashlight and candles — and also a family emergency plan available for free.

“It is .... another thing people tend to think, ‘It wouldn’t happen to me.’ There was a very low F1 tornado that touched down in Rochester Hills,” Quisenberry said. “You don’t know where it’s going to be. The chance of it happening here is just as great as it happening anywhere else.”

As severe weather looms this spring, it’s important to remember to take shelter in a home or building with a strong foundation, if you can, during a tornado warning, and to stay away from windows. Head to the basement if one is available; otherwise, head to an interior room and take shelter under mattresses or a sturdy piece of furniture. Those living in mobile home communities should try to get to the neighborhood’s community center if they can and if there is time, because it is “a little more secured,” Quisenberry said. 

The American Red Cross recommends getting ready for high winds now by removing damaged or diseased limbs from trees. When a storm is coming, secure lawn furniture, trash cans or anything else outside that could be picked up and become a projectile. 

On the road, if you see a twister up ahead? Don’t try to outrun it, Quisenberry said. 

“They change directions quickly,” he explained. “If you see that it’s coming and you’re going to be in the path, then get out and lie in a ditch, protect your head and neck area.”

Vicki Wolber, director of the Macomb County Office of Emergency Management and Communications agreed.

“The first thing is to be aware and know what hazards can happen in your area,” she said. “This season, thunderstorms, lightning, tornadoes, severe winds, even flooding. Pay attention to the news media and the weather reports so you know what’s coming.”

She said Macomb County has, on average, one tornado a year, but that doesn’t mean residents shouldn’t be prepared.

“Create emergency kits or grab-and-go bags for your home or your car,” then if you had to leave in a hurry or a storm hit your home, “you’d have some items,” she said. “Those come in handy, too, if there’s a flood.”

The key, she said, is being organized ahead of time instead of trying to grab supplies when you should be getting to safety.

“We’d rather have you get to safety and limit people being injured or killed from the event,” she said. “The awareness is key, that’s where it starts, and if you could already have some thoughts of what you would do ahead of time and have a kit and a plan, that goes a long way.”

For family preparedness plans and more tips to be prepared for tornadoes and other severe weather, visit oemc.macombgov.org or oakgov.com/homelandsecurity, or call (586) 469-5270 in Macomb County or (248) 858-5300 in Oakland County.