The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

April 30, 2014

Severe weather key: Prepare

By Rachel Fredericksen Digital Content Editor
The Clinton Herald

---- — CLINTON — The wave of deadly storms that made its way through the Midwest and Deep South this week serves as a reminder that preparation is the best defense against the havoc severe weather can wreak on lives and property.

Today also marks the first National Day of Action in conjunction with a Federal Emergency Management Agency initiative called America’s PrepareAthon!

America’s PrepareAthon! is an opportunity for individuals, organizations and communities to prepare for specific hazards through drills, group discussions and exercises. The Gateway Area Chapter of the American Red Cross will be posting tips and information on its social media outlets throughout the day, and Clinton County Emergency Management Coordinator Chance Kness sat down with the Herald to help get the word out.

An important first step in being prepared for a severe weather event is to know your risks. For residents of the Gateway area, spring and summer bring an increased threat of tornadoes, flooding and severe thunderstorms, and there are simple steps that can be taken to be ready when an event strikes.

On average, tornadoes kill 60 people in the U.S. each year. In this region, said Kness, more fatalities result from straight-line wind events than tornadoes.

This fact helps to explain why, in 2009, a change was made to the county’s use of the outdoor warning sirens to include severe thunderstorm warnings with winds of 70 miles per hour or greater.

Some residents have expressed confusion why the sirens sound when it’s “just wind.” Kness explained that 70 mph “is the threshold when wind becomes life-threatening,” and offered a reminder that outdoor sirens are designed for people who are outside and may not know what is coming. Winds in excess of 70 mph can turn wood, metal and other debris into projectiles that will harm anyone in their path.

Another factor to remember is that while tornadoes involve higher wind speeds, they typically affect a more focused area. The average width of a tornado is 300 to 500 yards, according to FEMA. Straight-line wind events can impact a much broader area, and are responsible for most thunderstorm wind damage.

Whenever outdoor warning sirens sound, residents are urged to find shelter, take cover, and if possible turn on a radio or TV to a local station for more information and possible emergency instructions. FEMA recommends that all businesses and households have a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio, which provides 24-hour information directly from National Weather Service offices.

Kness reiterated that while many smartphone applications will provide notifications of severe weather and dangerous conditions before they arrive, it is best to use them in addition to - not in place of - a weather radio, especially at night.

During a severe weather emergency, a basement or other underground shelter is the safest place to be. If this is not possible, the best alternative is a small, interior, windowless room, such as a closet or a bathroom. Kness emphasized that it is very important to put as many walls between yourself and the outside as possible, and the smaller the room is, the better, because the larger the wall areas the more likely they - or the roof above them - will give out.

Another recent change that has raised questions is the ability to activate sirens only in certain areas rather than countywide. The county is divided into six zones, and if a particular warning only affects one, or a few, zones, only the sirens in those zones will sound.

“Over-warning is bad too,” Kness explained. If people hear sirens going off and take shelter when they don’t need to, eventually they may start to disregard the warnings and put themselves at risk.

One myth that persists about the outdoor warning sirens, Kness said, is that an “all-clear” is sounded. This is not true in Clinton County. Different areas have different policies on when and how sirens are activated. Within Clinton County, the three-minute steady signal is sounded once per warning, with no separate signal for “all clear”.

For example, if a tornado warning is issued, the sirens will sound. If the warning expires and another is issued, they will sound again. Or, if a severe thunderstorm warning with winds 70 mph or greater is upgraded to a tornado warning, the sirens would sound twice - once for each warning type when it is issued.

Another step residents can take to minimize damage during a severe weather event is to care for trees before a problem arises. Kness said that while he recognizes cost can be an issue, he advocates trimming trees as needed, and removing old or rotted trees ahead of time. If a tree is unstable, it doesn’t take much to bring it down.

Clinton County Conservation monitors trees in camping and park areas to address any dangers, but even with this proactive approach trees have been known to come down - one recently onto an unoccupied cabin. Kness also recalled an incident near the Quad-Cities in 2008, when a tree limb fell on a tent, killing one child inside and injuring two others.

Fortunately, technology allows the National Weather Service and other forecasters to generally know well in advance what weather conditions are likely to be. Residents are encouraged to stay informed by making themselves aware of any anticipated severe weather and planning accordingly.

Kness is frequently asked where people should take shelter if they are at a store or somewhere other than home when a warning is issued, and his answer is always the same: don’t go to a store or other place that doesn’t have adequate shelter when severe weather is expected. Residents should plan ahead, and ensure they have access to a safe place so they can take cover if a severe weather event strikes.

In this area, the levee system provides protection from most flood events on the Mississippi River. In general, the Mississippi reaches flood stage two to three times per year, and other than a need to pump out the rain that falls while the floodgates are in and a few areas not covered by the levees, Gateway-area residents are minimally affected.

“People should understand it isn’t a guarantee that we won’t have a problem here,” said Kness. “Levees fail.”

To illustrate, in 2008 Linn County saw the Cedar River crest at 31.12 feet -- 11 feet above the previous record. “We shouldn’t let a lack of imagination stop us from being prepared,” said Kness. “There’s a first time for everything.”

Kness also stressed that flash flooding -- the No. 1 cause of death associated with thunderstorms in the U.S. -- can affect virtually any location, not just areas in a floodplain. Flash flooding occurs when intense rainfall results in a rapid surge of rising flood waters.

Everyone is encouraged to have a sump pump to remove water from a home, and to be prepared to evacuate on short notice if needed in the event of flash flooding.

One of the main things that people know, but don’t do, is to have an emergency kit, said Brooke Mehaffey, Red Cross Regional Communications manager.

A smartphone can be a valuable tool during a severe weather event, with many different applications available that will notify the user of watches and warnings issued by the National Weather Service. The American Red Cross offers several apps, explained Mehaffey, including first aid, tornado and flood. Users can set multiple locations so the app will give notifications for the area where the user or their loved ones live.

While it is always important to have a plan, Mehaffey said, this is particularly true for families with children. Make sure children know what to expect in the event of an emergency to help them stay calm, and practice emergency escape routes and taking shelter.

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Recommended items to include in a basic emergency supply kit:

• Water - one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation

• Food - at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food

• Battery-powered or hand-crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert, and extra batteries for both.

• Flashlight and extra batteries

• First-aid kit

• Whistle to signal for help

• Dust mask - to help filter out contaminated air, and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place

• Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation

• Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities

• Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)

• Local maps

Additional items to consider:

• Prescription medications and glasses

• Infant formula and diapers

• Pet food and extra water for pets

• Important family documents, such as copies of insurance policies, identification, and bank account records, in a waterproof, portable container

• Cash or traveler's checks and change

• Emergency reference material such as a first-aid book, or information from

• Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person. Consider additional bedding if you live in a cold-weather climate.

• Complete change of clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and sturdy shoes. Consider additional clothing if you live in a cold-weather climate.

• Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper. When diluted nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color-safe or bleaches with added cleaners. 

• Fire extinguisher

• Matches in a waterproof container

• Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items

• Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels

• Paper and pencil

• Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children

The Clinton County Emergency Management Agency also reminds residents that we rarely know when a disaster will strike. It could be tomorrow, or it could be 10 years from now. Every 6 months you and your family should review and rotate items in your emergency supply kit. (For some families, you may want to consider doing this more often if there is an infant in the family or someone else who has rapidly changing dietary needs.) In order to make sure that your supplies will be fresh and usable when you need them most, consider rotating new food into your kit, exchanging old batteries for new, rotating fresh water into your kit, making sure the extra clothing still fits, any prescriptions are current and that nothing is outdated in your first-aid kit.