Experts: Key to surviving tornado season is having a safety plan

By Gretchen Teske, Mt. Pleasant News


Early spring may seem like tornado season, but according to emergency coordinators in the Henry and Washington counties, tornadoes can happen anytime. Learning how to spot one is only half the battle. The other half is being prepared in any situation.

Marissa Reisen has been the emergency coordinator for Washington County for the past 10 months. Originally from Muscatine, Reisen has lived across the United States from Wisconsin to Utah.

According to Reisen, tornado season is calculated by looking at weather history. The National Weather Service keeps track of reports and predicts the most accurate times. ?Technically, they could happen anytime, but for the most part, we see them early spring (and) early summer,? she says.


Keeping an

eye on the sky

Reisen feels keeping track of storms and staying up-to-date on weather alerts is the smartest way to prepare. Tornado sirens are outdoor warning systems. Their goal and purpose is to get individuals indoors and away from danger. Once inside, seeking information is the next step. She recommends looking to the news, weather radios and even apps available for download on a cellphone.

Walt Jackson, Henry County?s emergency management coordinator also recommends taking safety measures to prepare for storms by checking weather services. He encourages everyone to be on the Alert Iowa system, which can be accessed via the county website. The system uses the individual?s location to send weather related alerts specific to the area. ?Having those internal alert systems (is) probably one of the things I strongly encourage people to do,? he says.

Checking the radar is the most accurate way to seek information because unless one is trained to look for tornadoes, there are few indicators. ?Everyone talks about seeing a wall cloud, but a lot of times they have the wrong image of what a wall cloud is,? she says.

The wall cloud is the back end of the storm which lowers to the ground and where tornadoes are often formed. She says people often mistake these for shelf clouds, which are the front of the storm, and most commonly seen before severe thunderstorms.

Knowing when the storm is coming and taking proper shelter when it does are proper steps for safety but knowing the safest place to be in any situation is the best way to be prepared.


Forming a plan

Jackson says that making a plan is the best and most important thing to do. ?When things hit the fan isn?t the time to try and make a plan,? he says. He encourages preparing food, water and flashlights in the designated area. In the event of a serious disaster, being able to survive until emergency personnel are available to help is key.

He also recommends setting up this plan with children. ?I think people are scared to talk to their kids about emergency situations because it can be scary, but I think it?s good to talk to the kids about it,? he says. ?If kids are prepared, they?re less scared.?


Seeking stable


For shelter, Jackson encourages finding a stable building. The age of the building will not determine the stability. ?A lot of times older buildings are more secure, (because) they?re built more soundly,? he says. ?That?s not saying that the new stuff isn?t good.?

In the event someone is in a mobile home, Jackson suggests getting to the most inside area, such as the bathtub, and taking cover.

If in an apartment, Reisen advises getting to the lowest level possible. If this is not a possibility, she says to gather as far inside with as many walls surrounding as possible, while avoiding windows and exterior doors. For added safety, she suggests putting infants in car seats and children in bike helmets. ?It?s an extra layer of protection,? she said.

If in a car, staying inside is the safest option. ?If you can get to shelter, get to shelter,? she says. ?(But) if you?re taking cover in a ditch, you?re still exposed.? She encourages staying in the car, pulling over, turning flashers on, tightening the seat belt, then taking cover. Covering with anything available, such as a towel or blanket, which will protect from potential glass shattering. ?The best you can do is be covered,? she said.

If a power line falls on the car, Jackson says to stay inside until emergency personnel can assist. If there is a serious injury or effect, they are trained to help the individual escape safely.

Being outside during a tornado is not recommended but if at a camp site or in another situation where it cannot be helped, he says to lay down in a ditch and cover up. Avoiding trees or telephone poles that could collapse is important for safety.

Staying safe during a tornado applies to the aftermath as well. Tornadoes move quickly but can last for up to half an hour. Before exiting from the safe location, Reisen advises checking with local news sources to see if the storm has passed. ?Sirens are only sounded when the warning starts,? she says. No all clear signal will be given.

?Even once it?s done, there are still hazards out there that people need to be aware of,? she said. ?If it hits, there?s going to be danger from debris.? She suggests first checking for the safety of oneself and others surrounding before going outside to assess the damage. ?If things are bad, then call 911 and get help. If things aren?t bad, people can reach out to the emergency management office,? she says.

The emergency management office takes all kinds of calls and encourages all reports of weather related activity. As well as weather, the office works with the community in all emergency situations.

To be an emergency management coordinator, a FEMA certification must be complete. Once done, trainings, workshops and mock disasters are scheduled and must be attended to maintain certification. ?Weather is just a small part of the job,? Jackson said.

The daily schedule of a coordinator is determined by the emergencies that arise. Gas leaks, fires and flooding are also among their responsibilities. ?That?s one of the nice things about the job,? he says. ?There is no typical day.?

Jackson teaches weather classes as well as functional training exercises to plan for natural disasters. He visits schools, churches and businesses to help them form a plan in the event of an emergency situation. ?The biggest thing is for everybody to have a plan,? he says.