ROCKINGHAM — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Weather Service are using the hashtag #SpringSafety to encourage severe weather preparedness this year.
“We’ve changed our focus from a severe weather week to a more seasonal, year-round awareness,” said Maureen O’Leary of NOAA. “Various kinds of severe weather occur throughout the year.”
Scott Sharp, a meteorologist for NWS in Raleigh, said Wednesday’s statewide tornado drill is a valuable practice for schools, homes and workplaces in North Carolina.
“We’re starting to go into our prime season here,” Sharp explained. “When you look at historic outbreaks, they are typically near the middle and toward the end of March. We had a (tornado) outbreak in April 2011 that happened east of Richmond County, south of Fayetteville and along the U.S. 1 corridor. And people who were around in the ’80s will remember the tornado outbreak in March, 1984. That was the Maxton and Red Springs area outbreak.”
Sharp noted that North Carolina does not have as many tornadoes as in states to our south and west.
“Our big events are few and far between,” he said. “But we still average about two dozen tornadoes or so a year — most scoring EF-0 through EF-2.”
EF stands for the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a tool used to classify tornadoes according to wind speeds and observed damage. An EF-0 tornado packs winds from 65-85 miles per hour and does mostly light damage, while an EF-5 tornado — the most dangerous currently on the scale — has wind speeds topping 200 mph and leave behind “incredible” damage.
“For us in North Carolina, especially, people don’t always think about what they would do if they saw such a storm approaching,” Sharp said. “If you’re at church, at home, at a place of business, what would you do?”
People often hear that they should leave mobile homes or other structures that are not rooted into the ground. They hear that if they find themselves driving, they should get out of the car and head for a ditch or an underpass.
“It’s always a tough call, it always is,” Sharp said. “A lot of people in North Carolina do live in mobile homes. Once you get a warning, it might be a good idea to leave that home and go somewhere down the road, even to a gas station. The best thing is to just get somewhere sturdy as quickly as possible.”
As for abandoning cars and huddling in an underpass, Sharp said that’s outdated teaching.
“As more and more studies are done on that, the chances of injuries are actually increased by getting in an underpass,” he said. “Those become wind tunnels, and when you consider all the dirt and debris being thrown into them, all the cuts and abrasions, eye injuries from the dirt and debris in in the air — that’s not actually safe.”
Yet, according to Sharp, getting out of the car and away from it and other objects that could be swept up in tornado winds is non-negotiable.
“Really, get out of the car,” he emphasized. “I worked at an event in November of ‘89 in Huntsville, Alabama at the beginning of rush hour. It was on Nov. 15, I remember that. A severe storm came down a major thoroughfare. People in the cars did not know what was happening. Out of the 23 total fatalities from that day, I want to say about 15 were in their cars.”
Sharp also said that sometimes, a car may be the only means of escaping the path of a twister.
“If you think you can outrun the tornado, try to outrun it,” he said. “But if that isn’t possible, get out of the car and get in a ditch or something. There are a lot of ways things can go — and sometimes, it’s just bad luck. Do the best you can.”
In North Carolina tornadoes can be difficult to distinguish from thunderstorms because many of the state’s tornadoes happen during the night. More than half the state’s tornado deaths happen between dusk and dawn.
Sharp said that when he gives talks at schools, he is impressed that most of the students understand the difference between a tornado watch (wherein conditions are favorable for the development of tornadoes) and a tornado warning — issued when one has been spotted on the ground or indicated by radar.
“Be prepared,” Sharp said. “That’s why we do this every year the first week of March. March through May are the most active months for us.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673.