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Thursday, February 23, 2012

I'm a Believer (in Severe Weather Preparedness)

If you awake to the sound of a train with no railroad, then it’s probably already too late.

You have seconds, not minutes, to get up and find a safe place in an effort to escape injury or death from a tornado. 

This is Severe Weather Preparedness Week, and I had firsthand experience with its purpose back in March 1996 when my family was sooooo not prepared. We awoke to the sound of an F2 tornado barreling through our neighborhood at 4 a.m.

Our young sons woke up first, frightened by the thunder and torrential rain. After reassuring them that it was just a thundershower, I unplugged the television, because lightning was popping everywhere. Had I turned it on instead, we would have known a tornado was almost upon us.

 Then we heard it.

“What does that sound like?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t hearing what I thought I heard.

“Mama, that sounds like a train.”

Then the power went out.

“Get up, everybody! In the hall!”

As their daddy raced to get sofa cushions and pillows for our protection, I tried to pull a hall tree out of the way so it wouldn’t fall on top of us. By the time we were huddled together, the storm was already past our house.
As it turned out, we were very fortunate. Unlike some families in our neighborhood, we still had a roof and a house. Unlike a nearby couple, we still had our lives. We did have some property damage, but it wasn’t devastating.

Still, I mentally kicked myself for being unprepared and not turning on the TV. Later, I purchased a weather alert radio, which at the time didn’t help since we lived just out of range of a NOAA weather station.  Eventually, my mind eased when the county installed a weather siren a quarter mile away. 

These days, we still have the weather siren, but we can also receive NOAA radio alerts.  We have live streaming severe weather via the Internet, and if we want, we can get alerts on our cell phones.

So, last April 15, when a series of small tornadoes swept through, I was ready. A few areas in the county, such as the agricultural research station, received damage from short-track storms.

 Then, when parameters for powerful, long-track tornadoes went off the charts for April 27, it was a little comforting that our county was on the southern tip of the forecast area. Still, I prepared for the worst, moving the hall tree and gathering cushions, pillows and a small mattress for cover, just in case.  (There wasn’t enough time to dig a basement!)

After the first storm of the afternoon hit Cullman, I tuned into James Spann via Internet and another station via TV as the monster tornado bore down on Tuscaloosa.


Then, as the Tuscaloosa supercell kept on going and going and going, I just prayed that it would spare Birmingham. 

About that time, my son who lives in Birmingham, called (or maybe I called him!). He and his wife had their safety plan in order, and he stayed on the phone as the tornado entered the western part of Jefferson County. We soon realized that their area would be spared. 

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to write an article about some of the rural damage caused by the historic outbreak. While the heavily populated cities received the most media coverage due to loss of life and extensive property damage, there were farmers frantically trying to save their livelihoods.

A catfish farm in Greene County suffered a direct hit by an EF2-3 tornado as it plowed 71 miles across the countryside. Winds damaged 75 percent of the ponds, tossing aerators out of the water and throwing roofs, siding and tractors in.

Three workers narrowly missed certain death when they chose to leave the smaller farmhouse (that was leveled) and take cover in a larger structure. The farm lost its shop, sheds, silos, boats, tractors, trucks, trailers, aerators and 50 power poles.  Other farmers arrived the next day to begin weeks of work to help locate replacement equipment and get the operation back up and running. 

Now, as Alabama holds the record as the state with the most tornadoes for 2011 and so far, for 2012 as well, we accept that this is a high-risk state, and there is nothing we can do to tame severe weather. We can only prepare and pray for the best.

So  yes, I recently purchased a brand new weather alert radio and had it programmed when the meteorologists from Montgomery came to town.  I also bought myself a bicycle helmet to protect my head, and even if y’all think that is paranoid, James Spann said that helmets saved lives last April 27 and probably could have saved even more if people just had them…and frankly, that tornado back in 1996 turned me into a believer!  

(Posted for the Alabama Disaster Relief Blogging Program to help fund the Christian Service Mission in Birmingham rebuild homes, lives and communities.)