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Experts share tips on being prepared for tornado season

Published: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 11:26 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 7:12 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided by Lorraine Mahoney)
A funnel cloud in Nebraska captured by St. Charles resident Lorraine Mahoney earlier this month.

Lorraine Mahoney travels throughout the Midwest region, seeking out severe storms that could become tornadoes. The St. Charles resident is a storm chaser, and she said she has seen severe weather develop in big cities and more rural areas.

She said it can get frustrating when those close to her tell her they don’t think a tornado could strike in the Kane County area.

“A bunch of friends got really mad,” she said. “I was talking about tornadoes, and they said it would never happen. They think Lake Michigan would spare us.”

Severe weather season has arrived, and local experts agree that it is possible that tornadoes could cause damage in the Tri-Cities and Kaneland area. Training has taken place, and those involved said it is not wise to ignore tornado warnings or severe thunderstorm warnings. A weather radio is helpful, they said, as are alert systems that send messages directly to a phone, such as the new text alert program recently launched by the Kane County Chronicle.

According to www.ready.gov, the peak season for tornadoes in northern states is from late spring through early summer.

When danger strikes

Paul Bumba, the emergency preparedness coordinator for the city of St. Charles, said there have been efforts to inform residents about the difference between a severe thunderstorm watch and warning, and a tornado watch and warning. A watch means conditions are favorable for a severe thunderstorm or tornado. A warning means that a severe thunderstorm or tornado is occurring, and those in the designated area likely will be in danger.

“When a warning is issued, it means they should take shelter right now. … A lot of times they’ll wait for an outdoor warning siren, and then talk to their neighbors and friends to see what is occurring. My suggestion is not to wait,” Bumba said.

John Baird, assistant superintendent for operations and buildings at St. Charles School District 303, said the district conducts drills to prepare for severe weather. If a warning were to go off, he said, “we go into hold immediately. … When those weather radios tell you to take cover, we are in cover until we are released.” He said such situations have happened in the past few years.

The biggest challenge, he said, can be when there is a warning while parents are waiting outside of a school. He said “sometimes, you literally have to go out and get them.” He said the district works with Bumba, as well as the four fire districts that cover the area – St. Charles, Fox River, South Elgin and West Chicago.

Elburn resident Brad Hruza, a storm chaser and weather spotter, said when people are at home, the best place to take shelter is a basement, under the stairs or in an interior room with walls on all sides and no windows. He said it’s important to pay attention to warnings and take shelter.

“I have witnessed death, from people not taking warnings seriously, firsthand,” he said, adding that he went to Moore, Okla., and stood in the area where children died at a school. “It was hard to take in.”

Be prepared

Dave Gualdoni is an Elburn trustee who works closely with the Elburn Community Emergency Response Team. He also is a weather spotter. Gualdoni suggests residents take CERT classes, which cover what to do during emergencies, because “there’s a chance you can be on your own for a while.”

He said people should have weather radios and take advantage of technology that can provide warnings. He said people can look at the radar, and they can have an understanding of what might be headed their way. He said it’s important to have a good plan – at home and at work – and he suggests that parents know what the policy is at their children’s schools.

Among important questions to consider, he said – do you have your finances in order? If you do lose everything, do you have a way to recover titles to houses or cars?

Websites, such as www.ready.gov, list suggestions on preparing a safe room. Hruza said people never should take shelter under a highway overpass “as that acts as suction like putting your thumb over a garden hose.” He said to avoid the second floor of a structure, as well as windows.

Lt. Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff’s Office, said precautions should be taken so that people are not in a vehicle when a tornado strikes. He said there once was a time when people would say a storm was unexpected, “but now you get those weather alerts right to your phone.”

He said people should understand that, during a period of crises, they might not be a top priority. For instance, during flooding that occurred last year, he said there were 911 calls from people who had flooded basements.

“We can’t get there for that,” he said. “We have other things we have to do.”

Taking it seriously

Mahoney and Hruza both seek out severe storms and have witnessed multiple tornadoes. But they say there still are too many residents who live in the area who become complacent. For example, Mahoney said she’s heard friends in Kane County say the area is too populated to sustain serious tornado damage, but she stressed the area is not bigger than Tuscaloosa, Ala., a city of nearly 100,000 that was hit hard by tornadoes in 2011.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” she said. “We’re not going to be lucky forever.”

Hruza said the area is “very overdo for a major tornado outbreak.”

Bumba said part of the issue is that the county covers a lot of area from north to south, and there could be a tornado warning and severe weather in the north part of the county, but no severe weather at all on the same day in the south part of the county.

“They’ve been warned before, and nothing has happened,” Bumba said. “And rather than being thankful that nothing has happened, it’s like we’re crying wolf again.”

Gengler said he saw a lot of that during the recent winter, with motorists caught in heavy snow despite warnings. He sent out strongly worded warnings on the office’s Facebook page in the hopes that people would take heed and avoid unnecessary travel. Instead, he said “we had quite a few people who were out and about in some of those big snowstorms who really, quite honestly, didn’t need to be there when they got stuck.”

“I think some of it is that people say, ‘Oh, it’s a severe thunderstorm warning,’ and nothing happens,” Gengler said. “Until that weather event gets here, you can want to tell people all you want. You truly don’t know what the impact is going to be. … You can’t stick your head in the sand and say it couldn’t happen.”

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