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May 5, 2013

Tornado veterans balance preparedness, practicality

Few things in nature are less predictable than a tornado. They can form quickly. They strike weirdly, leveling one building while leaving its neighbor untouched. They can fling a car a half-mile and turn a piece of lumber into a wall-piercing missile.

In spring 2011, as a series of tornadoes devastated Alabama, Rita White tracked an EF-5 monster moving over Limestone County, where she works as emergency management director. The tornado was miles from her office in Athens, but her husband was texting her about pieces of tin falling on the roof of their house in the northwest Alabama city.

Also falling from the sky over Athens were blue jeans scattered from a Wrangler factory the tornado had obliterated 77 miles away.

“They do baffling things,” says Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. 

How do you prepare for a freak of nature? Even people who live in tornado-tested places have mixed feelings about how much is necessary. Tightened building standards and storm shelters are obvious tools to brace for vicious wind and debris, but tornado veterans balance those steps with pragmatism. Rigid building codes and shelters cost money, and the odds of being hit by one of the storms are actually relatively low.

Patterns and Planning

While tornadoes are unpredictable – they can happen any time of year, any time of day, and strike all 50 states – they aren’t totally random, either. We’re in the thick of “tornado weather,” March through July, and the storms are far more common in parts of the South, West and Midwest than they are elsewhere.

Tornadoes don’t tend to hit cities, either, if only because of probabilities. There is far more undeveloped land than buildings in the places where tornadoes usually form.

“Most of the time they’re out scaring cows,” says Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, Missouri, which withstood a massive EF-5 tornado – the top of the scale, with winds reaching 200 to 250 mph – on May 22, 2011. The storm destroyed a third of Joplin, killed 161 people and caused up to $2.8 billion in damage, making it the costliest tornado on record, according to the National Weather Service.

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