What to know as severe weather season nears

Lake Sun Staff
King’s Plaza in Osage Beach following the microburst storm in 2020.

Tornadoes can occur at any time of year, though they are most common in the spring. Each year, across Missouri, warnings and watches are issued as storms approach. Being prepared and knowing what to do can be a matter of life and death. 

The National Weather Service and the State Emergency Management Agency have a wide range of suggestions to stay safe. 

“As the 10-year anniversary of the May 22, 2011 Joplin tornado approaches and we reflect upon more than 160 lives lost, and the years of recovery efforts, we’re reminded of the tremendous importance of preparing for severe weather no matter where we are,” State Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Remillard said. “This includes having an emergency plan in place and putting it into action before severe weather occurs in your area.” 

The EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. at 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2011 is considered the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since official records began in 1950. The Joplin tornado and an outbreak of other deadly tornadoes in 2011 have led to significant changes. In the aftermath, the National Weather Service has implemented new impact-based severe weather warnings to better communicate the severity of approaching storms; schools have reconsidered where to shelter students during storms; and since 2012, Americans have been able to utilize Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) on their mobile phones to automatically receive severe weather warnings along with other emergency information. 

Planning for an emergency weather situation is the first and most important step in being prepared.  Officials suggest having more than one source of severe weather information and suggest that an NOAA All-Hazards Weather Radio is a good investment. Smartphone apps can help, too. 

More generally, the idea is to be “weather aware,” especially at times when hazardous weather such as severe thunderstorms, tornados or flash flooding can develop quickly.

Specific language matters, too. The Weather Service posts a watch when conditions are favorable for severe weather. In other words, look sharp. A Weather Service warning, however, means a bad storm is actually happening and has been confirmed by radar or a trained weather spotter. A warning means it’s time to take action such as heading to a safe space during a thunderstorm capable of producing tornadoes.

Severe thunderstorms produce a variety of weather hazards including tornados, large hail, damaging straight-line winds, flooding and lightning. Emergency management officials encourage residents to prepare now for what spring weather changes can bring. 

Severe thunderstorms producing damaging winds in excess of 58 mph and large hail can be a threat to life and property. Damaging straight-line winds in excess of 58 mph are much more common than tornados and can be just as deadly. The Weather Service uses hail – an inch or larger, that is, quarter sizes – and/or winds of 58 mph or higher as measures of a severe thunderstorm.

It’s not safe to be outside during a thunderstorm, and officials have been promoting the phrase “When the thunder roars, go indoors!” The same applies on water as it does on land. Boaters on Lake of the Ozarks can find themselves in the middle of a storm with few options for taking cover. Keeping an eye on weather reports is important when you are headed out on the water. 

A building or even a hard-topped metal vehicle offers protection from lightning. If that’s not available, avoid open areas and don’t be the tallest object in the area. Stay away from towers, utility poles and tall, isolated trees. Stay away from things that conduct electricity such as fences and wires. 

Flooding and flash flooding are the most common natural disaster and, in the case of flash flooding, can come with no warning. Always avoid areas near fast-moving water and move to higher ground when possible. Remember to not swim, walk or drive through floodwaters. Six inches of water can knock a person down and one foot of water can sweep a vehicle away. 

Officials advise “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” meaning never driving into floodwater, even if it appears shallow.

Tornado safety

Schools, businesses and citizens are encouraged to do their part by reviewing their emergency plans.

In general, the safest place to get to during a tornado warning is a building’s lowest room without windows. Boaters who get caught in storms should head for shore as quickly as possible. 

Emergency response managers stress that outdoor sirens are designed to be heard outdoors, not indoors. Indoor sounds such as a TV can easily drown out sirens. 

-The safest shelter location is an interior room without windows on the lowest floor.

-Do not seek shelter in a cafeteria, gymnasium or other large open room because the roof might collapse. 

-Immediately leave a mobile home to seek shelter in a nearby building. 

-Overpasses are not safe. Their under-the-girder-type construction can cause a dangerous wind tunnel effect. 

-If you are driving or boating, stop and take shelter in a nearby building. 

-If you are driving in a rural area, drive away from the tornado to the closest building. If you cannot get away, stay in your car with your seatbelt on. Protect yourself from flying debris by placing your head in between your legs underneath the window line and covering it with your arms, a coat or a blanket.

-Never drive into standing water. It can take less than six inches of fast-moving water to make a slow-moving car float. Rapidly rising water may engulf the vehicle and sweep it away.