Here's what to know about severe weather season

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Meterologist gives talk on severe weather

By Lisa King

A woman struggling to escape from her car before it sank into a whirling, muddy current.

A man frantically searching for shelter from a deadly tornado rushing toward him.

Shouts, screams, the electrifying sight of lightning as it struck the earth in jagged bolts.

These were some of the scenarios pictured in a video presentation about severe storms given by meteorologist Joe Sullivan of the National Weather Service in Louisville.

Sullivan's presentation, held Tuesday night at Shelby Christian Church, was also designed to give people who want to be storm spotters a look at what they might be getting into.

Sullivan explained that the reason why March is known aa for severe storms is because this month is the transitional time between winter and spring, when warm air and cold air are most likely to collide.

“This big contrast in air masses is what causes the strongest storms because warm air and cold air collide,” he said. “The last gasp of winter air pushes into the warmer air.”

Information compiled by the National Weather Service about tornadoes in Shelby County dates back to 1890, when an F3 tornado hopped over from Eminence, destroying four farm houses and killing three family members in one house. Some other notable tornadoes are the following:

• March 25, 1964: An F2 tornado swept through Shelby, Jefferson and Oldham Counties, damaging four homes, 31 barns, 50 other buildings and injuring one person.

• March 20, 1982: An F2 tornado 200  yards wide struck homes in Waddy in addition to 12 barns, two mobile homes, and destroying several other buildings.

• June 2, 1990: An F2 tornado damaged or destroyed 16 homes and 12 barns along the north edge of Shelbyville.

• Feb. 6, 2008: Two F2 tornadoes touched down in Shelby County. Most of the damage was concentrated in the Flood Road area where the tornado destroyed a large barn when it threw it 50 yards. It also flipped an 18,000 pound mobile home, destroyed another barn, and damaged several homes, tearing every shingle off the roof of one house. That tornado also uprooted 40 large hardwood trees that were in its path.  


Storm spotters attended


One of Sullivan's graphics, which pictured a weather radar screen bearing the caption, “Radar 101,” embodied the spirit of the event, as he imparted the rudiments of severe weather to a substantial audience in the church's sanctuary.

“I missed my calling, I should have been a weather girl,” said Julie McDonald with a grin during a break in the presentation. “I'm always calling everybody to tell them a storm is coming, and some friends of mine told me this was going to be at the church tonight,” she said gesturing toward the huge screen. “And I said, 'Oh, I just have to go to that!'”

In addition to watching some amazing footage of daring water rescues and tornadoes bearing down on the camera, the audience learned some important facts about inclement weather from Sullivan, who talked as the crowd watched the video.

“Flash floods take more lives in Kentucky than either tornadoes or thunderstorms,” he said. “Last year, for example, in Henderson County, a woman tried to drive through water with her 2-year-old in the car and got trapped. She made it out alive; the baby didn't.”

March has been designated Severe Storms Month for both Shelby County and Shelbyville, and representatives hoped this community-awareness event would get some attention.

 “It's great to see this much interest in severe weather,” Shelby County Judge Executive Rob Rothenburger said, glancing around at the crowd.

His interest stems from his background in emergency services and his 20 years as a trained storm spotter, during which time he has personally witnessed the touchdown of at least three tornadoes.

“Was I scared?”

He pondered the question.

“Not as long as the tornadoes were heading away from me.”


Watches and Warnings


Sullivan talked about the difference between a watch and a warning. Simply put,  a watch means that conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop, and a warning means that severe weather has been confirmed in a certain area.

He also discussed how people can stay keep up with severe weather updates by using the Internet (weather.gov), weather radios, television and radio. In addition to these indoor warning methods, people outside can be alerted by weather sirens.

And some cell phones can be programmed to issue severe weather alerts.

“When you hear a warning, that is the time to find shelter,” he said. “You may not have much time.”


Tornado drills


Sullivan stressed the importance of having a tornado drill in the home and knowing ahead of time which part of the house to go to for the best protection.

The safest place is the lowest floor, preferably the basement. If there isn't one, the bathroom is the safest place because it offers the added protection of inside walls, Sullivan said. He joked that his friend told him he was going to install seat belts on his toilet.

“When a tornado has hit a house, the commode is almost always still anchored to the floor,” he said.

He added that people are rarely sucked up by tornadoes.

“Most people are killed by falling or flying debris,” he said. “It's a good idea to pick up a used bicycle helmet at a yard sale sometime to have on hand to wear during a tornado warning. Because most fatal injuries are to the head.”

In addition, one should not stay in a mobile home during a tornado warning.

“Mobile homes offer no protection at all,” he said. “An 85-mile-per-hour wind can roll a mobile home even if it is strapped down.”

Also, it is a myth that one should open the windows during a tornado, he said.

“People used to think that a house exploded because of the pressure, but we know now that the house is just blown apart by 250 mile an hour winds,” he said.


Flash floods and lightning


Sullivan elaborated on the dangers of driving through water during a flash flood.

“People are killed when they drive from a place of safety into water, and they misjudge how deep it is and how easy a car can start to float,” he said. “They literally drive to their deaths.”

Another dangerous situation is lightning.

“You should obey the 30-second rule,” he said. “If you can't count to 30 between the time the lightning strikes and you hear thunder, the lightning is close enough to strike you.”

If one is caught out in a lightning storm, stay away from trees, and lay down, because lightning will strike the tallest object in its path.


Prepare in advance


Sullivan said that in addition to doing tornado drills, it's also a good idea to keep a three-day supply of emergency items on hand in case you are trapped or cut off from help.

Items such as water, canned or dry food, and essential medications, as well as a flashlight and a battery-operated radio, should be included.

“If you take blood pressure medicine or medication for your heart, you might be dead if you didn't have access to them for three days,” he said.

Another excellent advance precaution is to purchase a weather alert radio, which will give warnings as soon as they are issued.

 Historic Tornado Facts  

Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes: The “Tri-State” tornado of March 18, 1925, an F-5, killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

Deadliest U.S. Tornado Days Since 1950: April 3, 1974—A “Super Outbreak” of 147 tornadoes touched down in 13 states, killing 308 people. Seven produced damage rated F5—the maximum possible—and 23 more were rated F4. This was one of only two outbreaks with more than 100 confirmed tornadoes, the other being with Hurricane Beulah in 1967 (115 tornadoes).

• Biggest Known Tornado: The Hallam, Neb., F4 tornado of May 22, 2004, is the record breaker for peak width, at nearly two and half miles. 

• Month with Most Tornadoes: The record for most tornadoes in any month was set in May 2003, with 543 tornadoes confirmed. This broke the record set in June 1992, when there were 399 tornadoes.

• Strongest Tornado: Strongest measured was 302 mile per hour winds measured by the Mobile Doppler on Wheels on May 3, 1999 near Bridge Creek, Ohio, the highest winds ever found near the earth's surface by any means.  This is only the highest wind speed ever recorded. No one knows what the highest speed has ever been.


SOURCE: National Weather Service