With tornado likelihood hitting its peak, emergency manager pushes preparation


It’s long been said that Arkansas’ fifth season is “tornado.” That’s an unpleasant reality, magnified by the fact that twisters aren’t confined to particular months and can occur at any hour as well.

However, the bulk of the state’s tornadoes strike during April and May, so area residents are being cautioned to keep an eye on the sky and give special attention to weather forecasts and statements. Tornado warning capabilities have improved dramatically over the past 50 years, but twisters can develop rapidly and allow mere moments for an alert to be issued.

Between 2000 and 2010, the state experienced 92 April and 124 May tornadoes. From 1950 through 2010, April counted 343 twisters while May notched 296. During that six-decade period, no other month had more than 184, and the overall number of twisters was 1,867.

“Preparation is the key to safety against tornadoes and other emergencies,” said Karen Quarles, coordinator of the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management. “There are several steps you can take to be prepared for a severe storm that could contain a tornado.

“First, develop an emergency storm plan for all family members, whether at home, work, school or outdoors,” she said. “Teach children their county and neighboring counties since storm alerts are given by county. Meanwhile, keep highway maps in several convenient locations to follow storm movements. Formulate and conduct your own storm drills. Have a NOAA weather radio with a warning alarm to receive warnings 24 hours a day, and make certain the radio has a battery backup.

“Listen to your television or radio for the latest weather updates,” Quarles continued. “And if you’re outdoors, listen to the latest forecasts and take necessary precautions during threatening weather. You may have to delay your outdoor activities until the danger is past, but it’s always better to be safe than late or sorry.”

Quarles said it’s important that persons know the difference between tornado watches and warnings.

“Keep in mind that a watch means that conditions are favorable for the development of a tornado,” she pointed out. “A warning means that a tornado is imminent.”

She added that when a warning is issued, it’s critical that persons move to a previously designated safe area. “A basement may be the best location,” she advised. “If an underground shelter isn’t available, go to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and — if possible — crouch under a heavy object, like a desk, away from windows and doors. And if your place of work doesn’t have a safety plan, strongly encourage your employer to establish one.”

Quarles said that people sometimes tend to believe that if a tornado approaches as they’re driving, they can escape by speeding away.

“Don’t try that,” she said. “You don’t want to drive over the speed limit and endanger others as well as yourself. An automobile can be as deadly as a tornado. Instead of trying to outrun a storm, keep a clear mind and don’t panic. If you are aware of a nearby designated storm shelter and can safety make it there, that’s good. If you see flying debris as you’re driving, pull over and park.

“If you can place yourself lower than the roadway, exit your vehicle and lay in a ditch or ravine, covering your head with your hands,” she went on, “As a last resort, stay in your vehicle and keep your seat belt on. Put your head down between the windows and cover your head with your hands if you don’t have a blanket available.”

Quarles said preparation may not be enough to prevent a severe weather emergency, but readiness can reduce the accompanying risk.