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The recent tornadoes: Is there anything we can do?

Occasional Observer

Wreaking havoc across Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, the spate of tornadoes that hit several of the southeastern  states Friday, Dec. 10, were terrifying and ominous. There was not one but several that did severe damage in five states and acted like a coordinated team of killers. One section extended more than 3/4 of a mile wide and 220 miles long before dissipating. The death toll for these tornadoes is close to 100, most of the deaths occurring  in western Kentucky near the tail end of the storms.

Tornadoes occur all over the world and every state in the country. The Mississippi Valley has been the center of domestic tornado activity for more than a century but the path seems to be moving somewhat to the east over recent decades. Every year including 2021, there are more than 1,000 tornadoes in the U.S. (more than in any other country).

Most tornadoes occur during the summer. Those in December are quite unusual. Perhaps global warming is making this more likely. As it happened, the Tornado Alley area and states just to the east were experiencing a late edition of Indian summer helping set the stage for the surge of tornadoes that followed.

Since the advent of Doppler radar in the 1970s, tornado forecasting has considerably improved. Today one can know a day or more before that a severe storm likely featuring tornadoes is coming. The path and more precise timing of the storm and tornado can be announced more than a quarter of an hour before its arrival. This allows most people in the targeted area to find suitable shelter, especially if they have planned ahead for this eventuality.

Most everyone who lives or works in an area known to be particularly susceptible to tornadoes should plan out in advance what they would do in the event of a serious storm, starting with preparation for home sheltering, finding a safe place where the household may gather during a tornado such as a basement, a storm cellar or lower level room with few or no windows. Clearing potential outdoor hazards such as dead tree branches near the house and loose items in your yard such as patio furniture makes sense.      

Scout the neighborhood for safe places to harbor should it be necessary. Perhaps the community has designated somewhere a safe public shelter such as a school or other public building. Although it may at first appear sheltering, highway overpasses are bad choices; they accentuate wind turbulence. If you are caught in a car before a tornado strikes, think about at least one safe shelter you can reach before the tornado strikes.

If you have a root cellar, this may be the best place to shelter during a storm. A traditional place for storing food before refrigeration became commonplace, root cellars are making a comeback as an economical way to store produce and protect it from both heat and cold. Traditional root cellars are typically small bunkers of heavier than usual construction, built into the ground.

Nowadays, particularly in the Midwest, there are scores of companies offering pre-fab storm shelters designed to protect people from tornadoes and other ferocious storms. Most look like huge steel caskets or shipping crates. Some of the better looking ones are designed to be planted in the ground. The concept is eminently reasonable for those living in locations especially vulnerable to tornadoes. But as presently designed these structures (typically under $10,000) are unusually ugly and depressing.

In a small factory in Mayfield, Ky., and an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., non-unionized workers were threatened with the loss of their jobs should they have left work to go seek shelter elsewhere as the tornado approached. All stayed and several workers at each facility were killed by the tornado. Future unionization might help avert such tragedies as would new worker protection legislation.

It could happen here. The Northwest Corner doesn’t have frequent large tornadoes like “Tornado Alley,” but nevertheless we do have powerful storms here including damaging tornadoes, as many as half a dozen per year.

During the past 20 years, tornadoes have touched down in Salisbury, Sharon, Falls Village and Kent as well as various towns just over the border in New York and Massachusetts. A 1995 tornado ripped through Great Barrington, clearing a wide swath of trees near the downtown and demolishing numerous buildings. A memorable tornado in 1989 in Cornwall  destroyed most of the historic 14 acre Cathedral Pines Forest and its 140 ft high white pines.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from tornadoes and other monster storms? We can do little to protect our landscapes and buildings but much to protect ourselves by paying close heed to weather warnings and having a strong, safe shelter or access to one on very short notice.

Sadly, most of the recent deaths from the tornadoes in Kentucky were attributable to people not taking the event seriously enough and not being adequately prepared.

         

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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